Interview: Sabine Clarke on the history of pesticides, colonialism, and much else

Sabine Clarke is Senior Lecturer in Modern History. She works on the history of science, technology and medicine in Britain and its colonial empire between WWI and 1965, with a particular focus on the Caribbean and East Africa. She kindly agreed to be the latest person interviewed as part of the All Our Yesterdays project.

  1. Who are you and how did you come to be studying insecticides?

I am Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of York. I have been at York since 2010 and before that I was a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. I did my PhD at Imperial College in the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

From University of York website

My work focusses on two things – the history of science in Britain from WWI to the 1970s and the history of British imperialism in the twentieth century. I am particularly interested in relationship between science, scientists and the state, including big issues such as the increasing attention paid to experts by government in the early 20th century and the ‘rise of research’, in which an activity labelled as ‘research’ became as the key activity that needed to be funded by business and government.

I first became interested in insecticides when I discovered that the British government had set up a major centre for insecticides research in the colony of Tanganyika after WWII. A group of scientists based there carried out extensive trials of DDT and other chemicals in East Africa during the 1950s. I tracked down the scientist who had been the head of the centre before independence, Dr Kay Hocking, and interviewed him about his work.

It struck me that the history of DDT use in the tropics had come to be completely dominated by the story of the World Health Organisation’s Global Eradication of Malaria project and that other bodies who sponsored extensive research into insecticides, and promoted their use, such as the Colonial Office in Britain, had been completely ignored. This prompted me to put together a funding application to the Wellcome Trust for a project to recover the history of insecticides in Britain and places that were part of the colonial empire. This project, called The Chemical Empire, is now in its fourth year and I am writing two books at present – one on DDT in Britain and the other mapping insecticide use across the British Empire.

2. What has surprised you in the course of researching insecticides?

I think one of the really surprising things about researching the history of insecticides in Britain and the British empire is that previous historians have not asked some fairly fundamental questions. There has been no attempt to really investigate where and when the deployment of different insecticides was greatest, in public health, homes, or farming. A lot of unexamined assumptions have become embedded in our existing histories. For example, a tendency to assume that malaria control was the most significant area of insecticide use in the tropics after 1945 has meant that other areas of insecticide deployment have been overlooked. In many places in the British empire, far greater volumes of chemicals were disseminated fighting agricultural pests, such as locusts in East Africa, than eliminating mosquitoes. What this means is that we have often been looking in the wrong places to understand insecticides and their impact on the environment and people in the mid-twentieth century. The insecticide experiences of whole communities have been ignored.

3. What lessons are there in how campaigners worked on this issue for climate campaigners?

The history of insecticides shows us the power of public outrage. The British case illustrates that concerns amongst scientists and some campaigning groups could only go so far in persuading policy makers to take action. Civil servants and politicians were forced to do something when a growing number of everyday people expressed their concern to newspapers, their MPs and directly to Ministers (there is a large file containing letters from the public in the National Archives) The turning point appears to have been the publication of Silent Spring in Britain in 1963. I would agree with the point that many people have made beforehand – that Rachel Carson’s intervention was incredibly important. Specifically, it is really striking in the British case that Carson’s book did not necessarily provide revelations of harm that nobody had previously known about (the harms had already gained a certain amount of publicity), but rather she provided a powerful set of metaphors and imagery that changed the way that people spoke about insecticides. The idea of a sea of poison washing over the countryside, the idea of invisible toxins seeping into our land and water, the invocation of similarities with atomic radiation and thalidomide and so on. I think what Carson did was capture the imagination of people in a way that scientific reports had failed to do, and perhaps most importantly of all, provide some incredibly affecting metaphors and images that provided a common language for the way that people expressed their concerns.

4. How and where can people find your work?

Two articles have been published recently on our work on The Chemical Empire project – both are Open Access.

Sabine Clarke and Thomas Lean, “Turning DDT into ‘Didimac’: making insecticide products and consumers in British farming after 1945”, History and Technology, 2022, Vol. 38, 1, 31–61

Sabine Clarke and Richard J.E.  Brown, “Pyrethrum and the Second World War: Recontextualising DDT in the Narrative of Wartime Insect Control”, Journal of History of Science and Technology, Vol. 16, no. 2, December 2022, pp. 89-112.

And this video shows me talking about the history of insecticides and locust control in East Africa.
  • 5. What next?

Tom Lean and I hope to finish our book on the history of insecticides in Britain by the end of the year. I plan to travel to Ghana to find out more about the history of insecticides and stored products in the summer.

6. Anything else you’d like to say

I am organising a workshop next year to discuss the global history of pesticides so please get in touch if this is something that you work on!

This interview originally appeared on All Our Yesterdays, a personal climate histories project run by Marc Hudson, social media editor for the journal.

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