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In Session: Knowledge in Transit: Modern Japan in the Global History of Medicine
1: Feces in the Labs, Rice in the Bowls: Debating Disease and the Science of Nutrition in Modern Japan, 1880s-1910s
Friday, March 26, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
University of Pennsylvania, Japan
From late nineteenth century to early twentieth century, people in Japan experienced dramatic changes in their daily life including food, clothing, and housing. Attention to improved well-being and better treatment for deadly diseases rose rapidly, leading to an increasing request for scientific knowledge of hygienic living. Facing such desires, Japanese medical experts engaged in active experimentations to scientifically identify the path towards a healthier nation.
This paper centers on the scientific experiments conducted in Japan between 1880s and 1900s on the connections between food and human health. Building upon the existing studies that examined such experiments in the domestic debates on the etiology of deadly beriberi, this research locates them further in an emerging global network of knowledge exchange regarding nutrition. It also engages in the scholarship that contextualizes scientific research to demonstrate the complexity in defining “progress” in the history of science. Relying on multi-lingual sources, this paper argues that the experiments, varying from chemical analysis of subjects’ feces in university laboratories to comparative observation of the effects of different diets in the military, marked the formation and fast development of scientific nutritional research in modern Japan. However, the application of advanced methods and nutritional knowledge in the experiments forged a new fixation on protein intake in nutrition science, which paradoxically restrained its further advancement in Japan in the late nineteenth century.