“The Ozone of Patriotism”

Meteorology, Electricity, and the Body in the Nineteenth-Century Yellowstone Region


  • Kelsey Matson Montana State University


This paper speaks to the theme of this special issue of History of Meteorology by “relocating meteorology” in three ways. First, it geographically re-centers meteorology in the Rocky Mountain West of the late nineteenth century, placing particular attention on the Yellowstone region. Yellowstone has long been connected with advances in the biological sciences, but little scholarship examines the role of either meteorological or electrical science in the region. Second, it repositions meteorology thematically by contextualizing it within the development of popular and scientific discourses on the physics of electricity and electrochemistry. Finally, it relocates meteorology within the emplaced and material human body by examining qualitative accounts of bodily encounters with atmospheric electricity published in scientific and technical journals. The primary thesis is twofold. First, rather than being rejected in favor of more objective meteorological instruments, the human body and its subjective sensory experiences were crucial components of the scientist-explorer’s toolkit. Especially in the study of meteorology and atmospheric electricity, the body served as a remarkably sensitive and useful tool. Furthermore, these subjective bodily experiences were published in respected scientific journals and were largely accepted by the scientific community as valid technical data. Theories of electricity, as it existed in both the lab and the sky, were in flux and highly contested at this time, and where mechanical apparatuses failed, the senses could sometimes succeed. Secondly, this article suggests that these visceral and phenomenal experiences with atmospheric electricity, as interpreted through the lens of science, helped to solidify in Americans’ minds a deep and intrinsic connection between the human body and the electrical Yellowstone landscape with ozone acting as the physiological mechanism of action. This cutting-edge science bolstered and lent scientific credence to the discourse of Yellowstone as a healthful climate. Examined through this narrative, Yellowstone’s early history is as much a part of the histories of meteorology and medical climatology as it is tourism and conservation.