Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire

8 Nov 2018
4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

470 Stephens Hall

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Suman Seth
Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University

This paper, drawn from a chapter of Suman Seth’s new book, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth Century British Empire (Cambridge, 2018), explores relationships between race, medicine, and the slave trade. Seth focused on the views of a former naval surgeon, John Atkins, who in 1735 penned what must be considered one of the more striking understatements of his age. In A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil, and the West-Indies, he described the difference between the physical appearance of the inhabitants of Guinea and that of “the rest of Mankind”: “tho’ it be a little Heterodox,” he acknowledged, “I am persuaded the black and white Race have, ab origine, sprung from different-coloured first parents.” Polygenism was, of course, considerably more than a little heterodox. Unusual in his polygenism, Atkins was also unusual both in spending very little time in relating his heterodoxy to Biblical views and in proffering his most detailed remarks within a medical text.

The fact that Atkins espoused polygenism in the same work in which he described diseases peculiar to native Africans led one of the few scholars to consider his texts in any detail to suggest that one might find “connections between concepts of race and concepts of disease.” That Atkins gave up on his polygenism in a later edition of the Navy-Surgeon (1742) without significantly changing his etiological understanding leads Professor Seth to the opposite conclusion. In the 1730s, Seth suggests, environmentalist understandings of physical difference were beginning to change. Environmentalist understandings of disease, however, particularly with regard to the diseases of warm climates, were not. Atkins provides us with a fine example of a trend that would continue for the majority of the century: the widening gap between ‘race-science’ and ‘race-medicine.’

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  CSTMS

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