APL Colloquium

April 17, 2014

Colloquium Topic: Back-Alley Ecology: Rats, Homes, and Community in 1940s Baltimore, and Lessons for Urban Ecology Today

In the 1940s, Johns Hopkins University was home to two rat control research projects whose strengths, blind spots, and conflicts reveal lessons for urban pest control today. These projects used Baltimore neighborhoods as urban laboratories for testing divergent rodent management strategies – and also testing the capacity of citizens and government agencies to control the environment. The first project, funded by the National Research Council and Rockefeller Foundation, distributed a newly-discovered poison to community volunteers. After 1945, a second project grew out of and broke radically with the first. The ecologists who led the second project teamed with the Baltimore Health Department to monitor rodent responses to block-scale housing rehabilitation. The ecologists refused to deploy poisons, insisting that only genuine environmental change would lead to successful rat management. These two projects seem to mirror two competing philosophies that defined the history of pest control in the twentieth century: reductionism and holism. Neither of these philosophies, however, spoke to the social inequalities that had helped create Baltimore’s abundant rat habitats. The neighborhoods at the heart of these projects suffered under a system of racial segregation in which African-Americans only lived in homes “at the last stage of residential occupancy” – that is, when those homes had depreciated so severely as to support thriving rat populations. This talk examines the history of rodent control in the context of social inequality in Baltimore, and attempts to draw lessons for contemporary public health pest management. 

Colloquium Speaker: Dawn Biehler

Dawn Biehler received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 2007. She is an Assistant Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her research interests span historical geography and environmental history of public health in US cities, environmental justice, urban and feminist political ecology, housing, and human-animal interactions. Dawn has also been involved in collaborative research concerning the history of wild and domestic animals in humanized landscapes, particularly legal and management approaches to human-animal conflict. She has examined the social geography of human-animal interactions in the urban landscape, specifically New York City’s Central Park. She is the author of Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats, published in 2013 by the University of Washington Press.