Physiology and biomedicine on high-altitude expeditions (c.1880-1980)

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Climbing to heights more than 8,000 m above sea level is as much a scientific as a physical challenge; in the first decades of the twentieth century, even after extensive experiments with barometric chambers and at lower altitudes in the Alps and Andes, it was not clear whether human beings could survive at such heights. In the years prior to the successful summiting of Everest in 1953, physiologists, doctors and other biomedical scientists organised and participated in mountaineering expeditions to try to understand, and predict, the effects of high altitude on the human body and design technology – from oxygen systems to ration packs – to enable human bodies to climb into what was colloquially known as the ‘death zone’. In the decades after the summit, a series of scientifically informed expeditions returned to the High Himalaya to continue researching questions of physical and psychological adaptation to this extreme environment. This chapter will outline the major biomedical questions raised – and in some cases answered – by these international expeditions; it demonstrates how these apparently marginal spaces and the literal frontier of human survival were reframed into crucial sites for making scientific truth; how they were leveraged to highlight the difference between White bodies and those of Native and Indigenous peoples; and how these scientists managed to justify their apparently niche, expensive and often dangerous research practices.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRethinking Geographical Explorations in Extreme Environments
Subtitle of host publicationFrom the Arctic to the Mountaintops
EditorsMarco Armiero, Roberta Biasillo, Stefano Morosini
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781003095965
ISBN (Print)9780367559830
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jul 2022

Publication series

NameRoutledge Explorations in Environmental Studies


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