History

Though often assumed to be strictly a byproduct of recent industrialization, elemental mercury and its various chemical combinations have in fact had a long history in human societies. Since ancient times mercury compounds have been used as coloring agents and medicines, and elemental mercury remains vital in precious metals refining. Our mercury study group seeks to identify the main features of mercury’s history worldwide. We will trace mercury’s many and tangled paths, from mines to consumer products, and from ships’ holds and boxcars to polluted streams and lakes. By studying mercury’s global past, we hope to gain insight on how best to deal with it in present and future.

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Kris Lane (History) – Kris Lane studies the history of mercury mining as part of the precious metal production process and plans to incorporate mercury-related research as part of his semi-annual service-learning program in Ecuador. Ordinarily, students teach English to Quechua-speaking inhabitants of the northern highlands, but past field trips have included visits to gold mining towns, most of them in the southern part of the country, to document mercury hazards and contamination.

Ideally, one or two of the W&M student volunteers each year would design and execute a research project focusing on one aspect of the larger mercury problem. These projects would include some research in the archives of the capital, Quito, which Prof. Lane knows well, interviewing environmental figures in the Ministry of Mines and the Ministry of Environment, and most importantly, interviewing miners and refiners who are routinely exposed to mercury, which might lead to public health projects.

A past project resulted in an honors thesis, but others have been incorporated into ad hoc and established courses (for example, History of Latin America and History of the Andes). Prof. Lane hopes to take students to Ecuador in the summer 2008. The program lasts approximately 6 weeks.

In addition, Lane intends to develop two new courses:

Environmental History (HIST211, 35-40 students): This course, to be offered in Spring 2009, would approach the subject of environmental history internationally, with a strong emphasis on mercury as a key theme and means of narrowing examination of methodologies.

Mining the Americas (HIST 212, 15 students): In this course, students would study the exploitation of minerals throughout the Americas and Caribbean since about 1500. The aim of this course would be to demonstrate the Americas´ shared history of mining, with all the benefits and problems this activity has yielded. Mercury played a central role in the history of precious metals mining, and two of the world´s best known mercury mining sites are found in the Americas. Given mercury´s relation to coal-fired power plants, the large portion of the course to be devoted to coal and other fossil fuels will also have added meaning.