Difference and Disease: Excellent new book on medicine and race in the 18th century British empire

Suman Seth is associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, at Cornell. He is an historian of science, and studies medicine, race, and colonialism (and dabbles as well in quantum theory). In his new book, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire, Seth takes on a fascinating subject that all of us who have worked in tropical regions but with a western (or northern) perspective have thought about, one way or another.

As Europeans, and Seth is concerned mainly with the British, explored and conquered, colonizing and creating the empire on which the sun could never set no matter how hard it tried, they got sick. They also observed other people getting sick. And, they encountered a wide range of physiological or biosocial phenomena that were unfamiliar and often linked (in real or in the head) to disease. A key cultural imperative of British Colonials as to racialize their explanations for things, including disease. The science available through the 18th and 19th century was inadequate to address questions that kept rising. Like, why did a Brit get sick on his first visit to a plantation in Jamaica, but on return a few years later, did not get as sick? If you have a model where people of different races have specific diseases and immunities in their very nature, how do you explain that sort of phenomenon? How might the widely held, or at least somewhat widely held, concept of polygenism, have explained things? This is an early version of the multi-regional hypothesis, but more extreme, in which god created each type of human independently where we find them, and we are all different species. (Agassiz, with his advanced but highly imperfect geological understanding, thought the earth was totally frozen over with each ice age, and repopulated with these polygenetic populations of not just humans, but all the organisms, after each thaw).

Seth weaves together considerations of slavery and abolition, colonialism, race, geography, gender, and illness. This is an academic book, but at the same time, something of a page turner. Anyone interested in disease, colonial history, and race, will want to re-excavate the British colonial world, looking at disease, illness, and racial thinking, with Suman Seth as your guide. I highly recommend this book.

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