Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire
Cambridge University Press
Suman Seth's new book Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2018)provides a new angle on the formation of modern ideas of race through the formation of the British Empire. While scholars have often addressed this phenomenon through the lenses of academic anatomy and natural history, Seth suggests that medical care and theories of pathology were central to how Britons began to see their bodies as fundamentally distinct from other peoples. After the Seven Years War, medical thinkers started contributing to British imperial ambitions by interpreting the distinct disease environments of the empire’s disparate parts. Initially, a “seasoning sickness” was thought unavoidable as colonists entered a new clime, for the body’s complexion had to adapt to the qualities of the new environment. Through numerous iterations and variations, this Hippocratic sense of a porous and variable body was abandoned as illness and vulnerability became ever more tightly tied to inherited somatic traits and behaviors. This figured strongly in debates over abolition and the legitimacy of slavery and provided the precedent for nineteenth-century scientific racism.
Lance C. Thurner recently completed a PhD in History at Rutgers University with a dissertation addressing the production of medical knowledge, political subjectivities, and racial and national identities in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mexico. He is broadly interested in the methods and politics of bringing colonial peripheries and non-Western spaces into the history of science and medicine and the role of the humanities in the age of the Anthropocene.
Lance C. Thurner teaches history at Rutgers Newark. His research and writing address the production of knowledge, political subjectivities, and racial and national identities in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Mexico. He can be reached at email@example.com.