Sun Science: Environmental Health, Medical Specialization, and Body Politics in 20th Century Canada



Shropshire, Sarah

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University of Guelph


Although the sun is often perceived as a constant, the sun, or more accurately humans’ relationship with the sun, has its own history. How the sun and sunlight are understood, and now humans have chosen to interact with sunlight has changed substantially over time. Focusing on 20th century Canada, the dissertation uses the sun as a thematic framework to explore various topics in the history and philosophy of science, history of medicine, gender, racial identity, environmental history, and the history of the body. Across these topics, the overarching argument of the dissertation is that the impact of science has increased during the 20th century. Although dissent to medical and scientific authority has grown among a minority of the population, science has increasingly become pervasive, with scientific findings and theories influencing day-to-day behaviours in ways often taken for granted. Science has become central to the social construction of key terms and concepts at the heart of changing ideas about the sun and sun exposure: beauty, health, the “normal” body, and nature/environment. Late 20th century fears around ozone depletion and increased risk of skin cancer are used to investigate the relationship between human and environmental health, suggesting that concerns about personal health can be a powerful motivator for action on environmental problems. Despite concerns about skin cancer, however, which originated largely with dermatologists, opinions about the risks and benefits of sun exposure varied considerably within the broader medical community. These differing opinions demonstrate that application and interpretation of scientific data can be subjective and medical specialization can encourage subjectivities that may be detrimental to overall health. Dermatology is used as a case study for medical specialization in Canada, which suggests economic considerations have been a motivator for specialization and that Canada’s single payer universal health insurance system amplifies inter-specialty competition. The increasingly sophisticated Canadian Dermatology Association has served as a vehicle for political action to protect its specialists. The systemic racism and ageism of dermatology is also explored. Both in medical and popular contexts, suntans are discussed as means of performing personal identity in terms of class, gender, race, and ethnicity.



Medical Specialization, Public Health, Atmospheric Science, Canadian History, Ozone Depletion, Skin Cancer, Dermatology, History and Philosophy of Science, Systemic Racism, Systemic Ageism, History of the Body, Environmental History