Institute of Historical Studies
Institute of Historical Studies

Jennifer L. Derr's "The Lived Nile" synthesizes histories of labor, disease, environment, and political economy

Wed, September 18, 2019
Jennifer L. Derr's

Story by Tiana Wilson, Graduate Research Assistant, Institute for Historical Studies, and Doctoral Candidate in History, University of Texas at Austin.

The Institute congratulates Professor Jennifer L. Derr (IHS Research Fellow, 2009-10) on the publication of her first book! From the microscopic to the regional, the local to the imperial, Derr’s new work, The Lived Nile: Environment, Disease, and Material Colonial Economy in Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2019), places the environment at the center of questions about politics, knowledge, and the lived experience of human bodies.

In October 1902, the waters of the Nile filled the reservoir of the first Aswan Dam, and Egypt's historic relationship with the river forever changed. Egyptian agriculture had long depended on the annual Nile flood, its rhythms demarcating the seasons and determining cycles of poverty and prosperity. Beginning in the second decade of the nineteenth century and stretching through the middle of the twentieth, the Nile River was engineered to support the production of new cash crops that included cotton, sugarcane, and maize. The construction of the dam tamed the river’s waters and produced new agricultural environments. The Nile River that took form – the perennial Nile River – reshaped Egypt's colonial economy. It also transformed the daily lives of those who lived and labored along the river by molding the future of technocratic knowledge and shaping the bodies of those who inhabited rural communities.

The Lived Nile explores how the material environments that comprised Egypt’s colonial economy helped to make engineers, physicians, laborers, and those who inhabited rural communities as historical subjects. The book is unique for its contributions to several different fields.

First, The Lived Nile asks how the new experiences of the body that were produced by changing agricultural labor practices, environmental transformation, and disease were important to the construction of subjectivity. Historians have commonly thought the question of subjectivity through social categories that include class, gender, race, and religion. This book thinks the physical body and its entanglements in the material world as central to who we are as humans and historical subjects.

Second, within the histories of science and medicine, the book explores the relationships among the material environment and the production and performance of expertise in the fields of civil engineering, public health, and medicine. It also describes the contributions of Egyptian actors to these fields.

Finally, within the historiography of Egypt, the history of colonial economy is overwhelmingly focused on cotton and the social relations of the countryside. The Lived Nile is framed by a more robust reading of the agricultural environment that includes other crops as well as the new sets of multi-species relations that resulted from the transformation of the river and a shift in agricultural practice.

In short, the book reads the history of agrarian history as environmental history, making a strong argument for the interconnectedness of political economy and environmental history.

“My time at the Institute was crucial to the process of planning to write the book. The Lived Nile is not my dissertation. In fact, much of the research that informs the book was completed after I finished my Ph.D.. During my time in Austin, my conversations with Yoav Di Capua, Lina Del Castillo, and Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra were important to thinking about how I wanted to develop the project and what direction I wanted it to take. Julie Hardwick was a mentor and a source of support.”

Dr. Derr is currently working on a history of the liver in twentieth-century Egypt. This new project traces the significance of liver disease caused by infection with the Schistosoma mansoni parasites that produced the disease schistosomiasis as well as the hepatitis C virus. Liver disease was one field in which Egyptian physicians and scientists made significant contributions to biomedicine.

Dr. Derr’s new work seeks to write these contributions into the global history of biomedicine, which has largely overlooked the contributions of experts from the global south. Overall, the book will chart the history of tropical medicine in Egypt during the second half of the twentieth century as well as the period of its decline in Europe and the United States.

Earlier this year, Dr. Derr was featured on TRAFO, a blog for transregional research where she discussed her new book and her participation in the workshop “Power in Medicine: Interrogating the Place of Medical Knowledge in the Modern Middle East.” The workshop was held in Berlin from April 11th-12th, 2019, in which scholars collectively examined the history and politics of medicine and psychiatry in the Middle East from the 1800s until the contemporary period.

Dr. Derr is an Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz where she teaches courses in the history of the modern Middle East, critical geography, and the history of medicine. She completed a Ph.D. in History at Stanford University in 2009. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences from Stanford University and a Master of Arts from Georgetown University in Contemporary Arab Studies. She was recently awarded a 5 year grant from the National Science Foundation to support support a research CAREER project that occurs at the juncture of three distinct fields: middle east studies, history of medicine, and environmental history.

At the Institute for Historical Studies, Dr. Derr was a Research Fellow during the second year of the two-year theme “Global Borders,” researching her topic “Cultivating the State: Cash Crop Agriculture, Irrigation, and the Geography of Authority in Colonial Southern Egypt, 1868-1931.”

Professor Derr’s research examines the intersections among science, medicine, political economy, and the environment in the modern Middle East. For more information on Dr. Derr, please click here.

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