UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

"Distempers peculiar to negros" : colonial physicians, etiological investigations, and the racialization of medicine in the eighteenth-century British West Indies Johnson, Hayley Rebecca


This thesis examines eighteenth-century colonial medical attitudes toward and discussions of human difference. By surveying five medical tracts written by physicians working in Britain’s West Indian colonies, it contributes greater understanding to contemporary notions of human variation. In addition, it also produces a counter-narrative to scholastic depictions of eighteenth-century British medicine, which argue that medical debates over human variation were dominated by theologically-based theories promoting the homogeneity of “man.” Intervening in this discussion, this paper posits that a number of contemporary colonial medical practitioners developed theories that were based not on theology or previous medical assumptions, but on empirical evidence. Through a series of clinical observations, these practitioners observed vast health disparities between their British and slave (“Negro”) patients; though the bodies of each group responded negatively to transplantation to the West Indies, Britons and Negros reportedly suffered distinctly from different forms of illness. In response to these observations, the highlighted physicians identified a set of diseases—including Yaws, the “Sleepy Distemper,” and the Guinea Worm—which they determined must be exclusive to Negros. Past historical scholarship claims that eighteenth-century physicians overwhelmingly agreed that humans varied as a result of climatic influence. Here, however, I contend that the medical practitioners studied in this paper concluded that variations in health, disease, and physiology were the result of innate, racially-determined bodily and mental characteristics. By positing that there were a number of exclusively “Negro” diseases, they simultaneously suggested that the bodies of Negros were racially pathological and that humanity was heterogeneous—two conclusions that historians of race argue were not reached until the works of nineteenth-century racial scientists. Throughout the following case studies, I argue that the racialization of medicine began as early as 1707 with the colonial writings of British physician Hans Sloane. While this initial racialization process did not overtly express any value judgements, it did suggest that Negros should be treated differently—if only in medical terms. It also directly contributed to and influenced racist medical declarations made about Africans and other minority groups throughout the two proceeding centuries.

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