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  • The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health, and Racial Destiny in Australia
  • Roy MacLeod
Warwick Anderson . The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health, and Racial Destiny in Australia. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002. xi + 352 pp. Ill. $Aust. 34.95 (softcover, 0-522-84989-X).

In this well-produced and well-argued book, Warwick Anderson considers the ways in which, in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Australia, medical ambitions combined with cultural assumptions to produce a science of race and a sensibility of "whiteness." Building upon the extensive work of other Australian historians, Anderson also addresses a larger question: What is it that makes scientific interest in "whiteness" an explanatory factor in Australian social and political life? His answers to these questions take him through the large literature of medical geography and germ theory; through theories of race and climate, evolution and degeneration, nature and nurture; and through a long historical valley of fear and foreboding, from which emerges the "White Australia" policy that, while officially rejected, continues to shadow political discourse today.

The book falls into three sections, dealing with the "Temperate South," the "Northern Tropics," and "Aboriginal Australia." In a sense, Anderson has written three books as one, and in their juxtaposition lies much of his originality. The first section describes the white encounter with the black man's country. In the tropical north, in particular, colonists looked to the medical profession for explanatory theories to account for relationships between health and disease, and to clarify and confirm their prospects for geographical expansion. Beneath [End Page 608] popular optimism lay deep-seated anxieties about social pathologies and communicable disease. Could white men survive in the tropics? If so, what would become of their "whiteness"?

To the well-known story of "making the white race work in the tropics," Anderson imparts a sense of urgency. The "Northern Tropics" became the province of the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine, which by the 1920s concluded that white men could indeed prosper, without fear of degeneration. By careful management of the environment, and by maximizing what contemporaries called hereditary potential, Australians could produce a white race more "pure, virile and cleanly than in its European homeland" (p. 128). By conveniently subsuming hereditarian selection within preventive medicine, the future of "White Australia" seemed unlimited. It was but a small step from medical theory to medical geography, and from theories of race to policies for population.

All this optimism left unresolved the origins and fate of those at the "black heart" of Australia. Experts believed that contact with whites would eventually doom Aborigines to extinction—but that while the Aborigines lived, they were scientifically interesting, and possibly held important clues to the origins of the human race. In the third, most significant section of his book, Anderson recounts the history of the several expeditions sent to central Australia during the 1920s and 1930s, in part to determine whether races could, by "dilution," be made, over time, to disappear. A set of experiments—involving studies of race-crossing, pain thresholds, and metabolic differences—sought, with singular lack of success, to distinguish Aborigines and half-castes biologically from whites. Anderson argues that this attempt to refine racial identity caused white Australians to reflect on the meaning of "whiteness." This is problematic, and will provoke discussion. What is certain, however, is that the authority of science was used to legitimate what was in essence a political enterprise. In its pursuit of theory, science validated assimilation, even though charity favored isolation. The consequences were profound.

In Anderson's narrative, the ideological contest that raged for decades between "assimilation and isolation" becomes complex. The account may lose the casual reader, but the serious student should persevere. This section—and its description of changing theories about Aborigines as "archaic Caucasians"—forms the book's strongest claim on orginality, and for this, it will be required reading. For here (illustrated by compelling photographs), we see not only the "return of the native" to a central place in Western medicine: we see also a salutary example of prejudice disguised in the language of science. Science helped conjure a "white" Australia, based on ideas of biological homogeneity that had their sincerest advocates among those...


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pp. 608-610
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