Lundy Braun

Dec 4, 2019

Breathing Race into the Machine

The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics

University of Minnesota Press 2014

purchase at “We cannot get answers to questions we don't ask.” Lundy Braun’s influential book, Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) documents the history and present-day use of an everyday medical instrument, the spirometer, which measures a person’s lung capacity. The instrument has a long history, but since the 1970s, this common medical device has been built with a switch that forces users to choose: are these the lungs of a person who is Black or a person who is White? In its materiality, the instrument forces racialized and individualized answers to the question: What explains human variation? In doing so, the people who have imagined, built, and refined the instrument have foreclosed structural, political explanations of human difference—and in doing so, foreclosed the possibility of holding governments and corporations accountable, including in recent workers’ compensation lawsuits. Lundy Braun tells the long history of this instrument as it passed between “knowledge networks” in the United Kingdom, United States, and South Africa within the contexts of medicine, law, and education. Admirably, Braun documents how and in what terms experts (unsuccessfully) questioned the spirometer’s epistemic authority and its racialization, as well as how experts partnered with social justice groups to use the spirometer for liberatory ends. The book emphasizes the contexts of war and industrial labor, the importance of standardization, and, above all, the role of the spirometer in creating and maintaining the “white norm” in the body. Lundy Braun is Professor of Medical Science in Pathology and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University. The interview was conducted collaboratively by Laura Stark [insert] and students in her Vanderbilt seminar, History of Global Health: Omar Amir, Maggie Cox, Bryce Bailey, Donald Fitzgerald, Ashley Hunter, Jillian Jackson, Rohit Kamath, Zoe Mulraine, Liu Lanxi, Madison Noall, Catie O’Reilly, Isabella Schaffer, Katie Swift, Charlotte Whitfield, and Allie Yan. For ideas and resources to use NBN interviews in your classes, please email Laura Stark at or see Stark’s essay “Can New Media Save the Book?” in Contexts (2015).

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Laura Stark

Laura Stark is Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society.

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