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Breathing Race into the Machine

The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics

Lundy Braun

Publication Year: 2014

In the antebellum South, plantation physicians used a new medical device—the spirometer—to show that lung volume and therefore vital capacity were supposedly less in black slaves than in white citizens. At the end of the Civil War, a large study of racial difference employing the spirometer appeared to confirm the finding, which was then applied to argue that slaves were unfit for freedom. What is astonishing is that this example of racial thinking is anything but a historical relic.

In Breathing Race into the Machine, science studies scholar Lundy Braun traces the little-known history of the spirometer to reveal the social and scientific processes by which medical instruments have worked to naturalize racial and ethnic differences, from Victorian Britain to today. Routinely a factor in clinical diagnoses, preemployment physicals, and disability estimates, spirometers are often “race corrected,” typically reducing normal values for African Americans by 15 percent.

An unsettling account of the pernicious effects of racial thinking that divides people along genetic lines, Breathing Race into the Machine helps us understand how race enters into science and shapes medical research and practice.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

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pp. ix-xi

This book represents the culmination of my journey from the laboratory to the archive that began in the late 1990s after I read an article in my local newspaper about race correction of pulmonary function in an...

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INTRODUCTION: Measuring Vital Capacity

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pp. xiii-xxix

On March 25, 1999, the front page of the Baltimore Sun featured a startling headline, “Racial Basis for Asbestos Lawsuits? Owens Corning Seeks More Stringent Standards for...

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1. “Inventing” the Spirometer: Working-Class Bodies in Victorian England

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pp. 1-26

With a landed aristocracy in crisis, labor in turmoil, and the specter of revolution across the English Channel still poignant for the ruling classes, the first half of the nineteenth century in...

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2. Black Lungs and White Lungs: The Science of White Supremacy in the Nineteenth-Century United States

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pp. 27-54

Coincident with its transnational dissemination, spirometric measurement became racialized across the Atlantic in the “natural laboratory” of the United States. As in Britain, the spirometer would...

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3. The Professionalization of Physical Culture: Making and Measuring Whiteness

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pp. 55-82

At the same time as Civil War physicians and statisticians were inscribing pathology onto the bodies of African Americans, midcentury physical culturalists took up spirometric...

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4. Progress and Race: Vitality in Turn-of-the-Century Britain

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pp. 83-108

The masses were restive. The revolutions of 1848 were sweeping the Continent, threatening to spread across the Channel and disrupt the fragile social order in Britain. In February, Karl Marx...

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5. Globalizing Spirometry: The “Racial Factor” in Scientific Medicine

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pp. 109-137

Hutchinson’s elegant machine and the “rule” around which he organized the meaning of vital capacity measurements captivated research-oriented scientists throughout the nineteenth...

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6. Adjudicating Disability in the Industrial Worker

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pp. 139-165

J. A. Myers, respiratory specialist at the Mayo Clinic, began advocating for spirometry in preemployment examinations in the 1920s. With workers pitted against industrial employers and...

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7. Diagnosing Silicosis: Physiological Testing in South African Gold Mines

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pp. 167-194

Spirometric measurement became racialized in South Africa through different pathways than in Britain or the United States. Global knowledge exchanges, local histories, statutory...

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EPILOGUE: How Race Takes Root

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pp. 195-206

When I asked physicians about the importance of the spirometer to their practice, I received a variety of responses. Some used spirometry as one element in the medical examinations. Others...


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pp. 207-258


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pp. 259-271

E-ISBN-13: 9781452940991
E-ISBN-10: 1452940991
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816683574

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2014