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  • Disease, Race, and Empire
  • Warwick Anderson (bio)

For many colonial writers and physicians, tropical nature was Purgatory shabbily disguised as Eden. In Rudyard Kipling’s story “William the Conqueror,” a self-possessed Englishwoman is irresistibly drawn “down to the baked Gehenna of the South”; and in “The Last Relief” Haydon—his nerve shattered by “fever and pressure”—looks out from cool, elevated Simla back to “the torment of the silver-wrapped plains below.” 1 During a relentless dry season in Calcutta, Kipling observed the “doomed creatures” wandering “dolorously” in the Eden Gardens. 2 As late as the 1920s, Somerset Maugham was describing a similar pattern of European degeneration under the tropical sun. In Malaya, the British aged quickly, the climate drove former public school boys to suicide, and colonial emissaries all turned to drink. Even the governor was prematurely gray: “his hair was gray, his face, his eyes; he looked as though the tropical sun had [End Page 62] washed the color out of him.” 3 It was worse for white women and children: “Mrs Skinner wished Joan were not quite so pale, it was a mistake to have kept her so long in the tropics; and she was so grave for her age, you never saw her run about; she played quiet games of her own invention and watered her garden.” 4 Maugham has the willful expatriate Lawson, who later drowns himself, summarize almost a century of medical research and popular belief in his lament that the tropical environment is “no place for a white man.” 5

No place for a white man, and yet just the place for white dominion over man and nature. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, physicians sought first to formulate and then to resolve this medical conumdrum of imperialism. In doing so, they mixed a potent brew of race theory, geographical pathology, and global politics. They called it the study of “acclimatization,” and for much of this period it was both creditable science and conventional medicine. Moreover, this medical investigation of interactions between racial constitutions and regional environments structured the colonial administrative doctrine of all the European powers. In even the most disparate of imperial contexts we see that framing disease, framing “environment,” and framing “race” all were the same maneuver—with political and social consequences perhaps as profound as any military deployment. 6

The following two essays trace the changing configurations of theories of European acclimatization in the tropics, from their development in the early nineteenth century to their circumvention (by racially organized notions of social pathology) in the early twentieth century. 7 The [End Page 63] essays thus identify new loci for the medical construction of race. In the last century, physicians worked out ideas of nature and ideas of “man” in British India, an exemplary proving ground for European advocates of environmental etiologies and constitutional medicine. But at the beginning of our century, their theories were reformulated in the American Philippines, where progressive public health officials sought to institute a new tropical medicine based on recent discoveries in bacteriology and parasitology. As in Europe and North America, the premier site of knowledge production by then had shifted from the clinic to the laboratory. 8 Both India and the Philippines—so apparently dissimilar—were models for colonial medicine in their time. Both places also were recognized internationally as crucial sites for understanding general patterns of human susceptibility and resistance to disease; their contribution to contemporary medical debates on these issues disturbs the usual facile, if convenient, distinction of center and periphery.

These essays trace the parallel trajectories of anthropological and medical ideas about the fixity of racial type—indeed, the similarities are such that one might better speak of a congruence of scientific assumption about race. (This should not surprise us: the boundaries of the two professional communities in this period were uncertain and readily perforated.) Before the 1830s, most experts on acclimatization held that the races could adapt their distinctive constitutions to changed circumstances: physicians working in this monogenist framework urged (with various degrees of optimism) vulnerable aliens to imitate many local customs and habits. But by the middle of the century, a polygenist assumption of racial fixity was...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3176
Print ISSN
0007-5140
Pages
pp. 62-67
Launched on MUSE
1996-03-01
Open Access
No
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