- The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia, and: Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and Other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia, 1780–1880
Both of these excellent studies deal with the question of how changing knowledges and beliefs about health, disease, and race contributed to the making of modern Australia. Warwick Anderson documents how "medical science and public health came to provide a rich vocabulary for social citizenship in an anxious nation" (4). Among the many virtues of The Cultivation of Whiteness is the use Anderson makes of the letters, journals, and other documents written by numerous ordinary medical practitioners. How would the Australian environment affect British bodies and "the white race"? How could medical science contribute to the creation and maintenance of a "white Australia"? If life in southeastern Australia was not too different from that in Britain, what about the tropics? Could whites live and work north of the Tropic of Capricorn? What would "the white race" evolve into in the new, strange conditions down under? Most nineteenth-century authorities "never doubted that a change in environment would change the race" (67)—for better or, more [End Page 485] likely, for worse. Some even speculated that the "degraded," "doomed" condition of the Aborigines was what lay in store for the white race.
Even as naive versions of environmental causation gave way to more sophisticated views influenced by evolutionary and eugenicist theories, a white Australia policy demanded constant medical and scientific racial surveillance. Anderson shows that such surveillance was applied to the Aboriginal population as well, and informed debates over racial segregation versus assimilation. While scientists such as Dr. Anton Breinl and organizations such as his Townsville Institute of Tropical Medicine continued to investigate the consequences for the white race of living in the tropics well into the twentieth century, others took up the physiology and genealogy of the Aborigines. Pre-Darwinian physical anthropologists—if they can be called anthropologists—looked for major differences between the races, often seeking to prove that they were separate species (polygeny). But post-Darwin investigations—measuring skulls, pigmentation, blood types, and the like—led unevenly but inevitably to the conclusion that the races of mankind were not significantly different from each other: homo sapiens formed a single species. In the Australian context, Anderson shows, one surprising but still race-based conclusion was that the Aborigines were an "archaic" version of the "Caucasian" race; according to this view, there were (perhaps) greater differences between that race and Africans or Asians. "At the end of World War I, Australia was a thoroughly Caucasian nation, even if much of the type was archaic, dark, and passing away . . ." (193). "Whiteness" could perhaps, without any damage to its genetic inheritance or alleged superiority, assimilate the remnants of the almost-extinct Aborigines, because the latter were next of kin. While this was a minority view, shared by a few experts and intellectuals, it nevertheless qualifies the usual assumption that white Australians have always understood and treated the Aborigines as their total opposites—that is, as creatures inhabiting the very lowest, least assimilable rung of the racial ladder.
In the Victorian era, the fear that the harsh Australian environment would cause the degeneration or even demise of the white race was fueled in part by the novelty of the diseases medical practitioners encountered. "Doctors on the goldfields observed puzzling diseases in themselves and among their patients," Anderson notes; "changed circumstances had altered the character of old diseases like typhoid and ague, and given rise to new ailments such as colonial fever, nostalgia, sunstroke, gold fever and bush- mania" (22). With the growth and apparent progress of the white population, and with the development of germ theory or contagionism (45–57), anxiety about the effects of environment on health and race waned, but never entirely disappeared.
Anderson richly documents how forms of...