• Elaine LaFay
  • Elaine LaFay
  • Assistant Professor of History
  • Degree: Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania
  • Additional Degree(s): B.A., University of Michigan
  • Rutgers : At Rutgers since 2020
  • Specialty: Environmental history, 19th Century US history
  • Office: 002D Van Dyck Hall



I am a historian of climate and the body, specializing in the nineteenth-century United States. My current research seeks to understand the entanglements between climatology, medicine, and imperialism.

My first book project, At the Tropics’ Brink: Climates of Disease and Empire in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf South, provides a new perspective on American expansion into the southern borderlands. It reveals that U.S. expansion was an imperial experiment, in both senses of the term. Testing scientific ideas about climate, vegetation, and health was central to imperial practice. This knowledge was useful to a diverse set of actors: boosters recruiting white settlers to contested land; both enslavers and enslaved people seeking to shape the built environment of plantations; medical practitioners, white settlers, abolitionists, and formerly enslaved people confronting experiences of debility; and speculators, physicians, and the state promoting popular fantasies about the commercial and medical promise of tropical America. I ultimately argue that settler colonialism was predicated on an experimentalism that turned parts of the tropics into laboratories for bodies and plants. This research has received grants and fellowships from the American Philosophical Society, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, the American Meteorological Society, the Mellon Foundation, and several other institutions.

I am also interested in the history of epidemics; health tourism; disability in antebellum America; the environmental history of death; gender & sexuality; and botanical knowledge in the Atlantic World.

Prior to joining the Rutgers faculty, I earned my PhD in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania and a BA in History with highest honors from the University of Michigan.


  • “Territories and Landscapes,” in Geoffrey Bil, ed., A Cultural History of Nature in the Nineteenth Century (under contract, Bloomsbury, 2025)
  • “Meteorology, Climate, and Health,” in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science, ed. Steven Wilson (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2023)
  • “Botany, Health-Seeking, and Settler Colonialism in Tropical Florida, 1827-1840,” The Journal of Southern History (forthcoming, August 2023)
  • What Happens Under the Ether: Vaginismus and the Question of Consent in the Nineteenth Century,” Nursing Clio, August 2022
  • “’The Wind Can Blow Through and Through:’ Ventilation, Public Health, and the Regulation of Fresh Air on Antebellum Southern Plantations,” in Thomas Blake Earle and D. Andrew Johnson II, ed. Atlantic Environments and the American South: An Anthology (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2020).

Selected Honors and Awards

  • Marguerite Bartlett Hamer Dissertation Fellowship, McNeil Center for Early American Studies, 2017
  • American Meteorological Society History of Science Graduate Fellowship, 2017
  • History of Science, Technology, and Medicine Fellowship, American Philosophical Society, 2016
  • CLIR-Mellon Fellowship for Dissertation Research in Original Sources, 2015
  • Research Fellowship in the Study of the Global South, New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, 2015
  • GAPSA-Provost Award for Interdisciplinary Innovation, University of Pennsylvania, 2012
  • Elizabeth Sargent Lee History of Medicine Award, Department of History, University of Michigan, 2011