- Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics by Lundy Braun
Braun’s book, a history of the spirometer, begins with an investigation into the charges of racial bias in an asbestos lawsuit. The premise—that black workers’ disability claims were being denied because their lung capacity was not found to be sufficiently diminished—sets off Braun’s exploration of why lung capacity is assumed to differ by racial categories. What follows is a fusion of the history of technology with the histories of racial sciences, of disability, and of class. Braun’s story may begin in Baltimore, but it spends significant time in Great Britain, South Africa, India, and the southern United States.
As Braun narrates, the spirometer, a device to measure the volume of air expelled from the lungs, has two points of origin. In 1844, John Hutchinson began presenting his research on lung capacity and his new device, which he called the spirometer, to the London Society of Arts. He hoped that the device would aid in the diagnosis of tuberculosis and in life insurance assessments of the effects of certain occupations on lung capacity. In 1843, Julius Jeffrey also invented the spirometer in India. He drew on individual studies of anatomy in order to augment knowledge about the effects that different climates and racial makeup produced in terms of lung capacity. Ultimately, Hutchinson is the only man who is credited with this device’s invention, and Braun’s history helps us to understand why. As Braun shows us, the spirometer was only useful as a comparative device—it required either earlier individual measurements, or a norm in order to interpret the results. Hutchinson’s device was linked to establishing norms—generally for reasons of profit for life insurance companies—while Jeffrey’s device measured individual difference. The spirometer’s emergence from and enmeshment in Victorian sciences’ interest in quantifying differences among races and between genders, as well as the growing trust in statistics, helped the spirometer appear as though it was an objective scientific device that could record statistical norms while appearing neutral.
This historical moment—the prizing of the statistical norm over the individual— is where the story becomes more interesting, and bias creeps into the picture. In order to illustrate this, Braun offers several different chronological moments in the creation of statistical norms. First, we read about Samuel Cartwright’s use of the spirometer to document racial differences among black and white farmers in the late nineteenth century. This application shifted the spirometer away from measuring the results of different occupations (as had been done in Britain), and toward marking racial difference physiologically. The social consequences of this reinforced racist arguments that stated that blacks were best suited for agricultural work while whites did better in factories. As Braun writes, “By the beginning of the twentieth century, lung capacity had been deployed in contentious societal debates and authorized by quantitative measures produced with a precision instrument (54).” Physiological racial difference is also at the core of Braun’s discussion of the spirometer’s use in Amherst College as a way to measure the physical fitness of the Anglo-Saxon race. Students of color were excluded from the sample because they were not deemed typical, and a larger [End Page 203] lung capacity was linked with increased physical fitness and superior physical prowess. In subsequent chapters, Braun traces the strengthening of this set of associations between whiteness, physical fitness, and lung capacity, first through the prism of nationalism by looking at Great Britain during World War I, and at the widening of the statistical pool by taking measurements globally. Increasing the sample size only helped to cement the idea that racial differences mapped onto physiological ones measurable by spirometer. In the aftermath of World War II, Braun shows us that the spirometer becomes a useful tool to measure disability by looking at Britain’s newly developed Pneumoconiosis Research Unit (PRU), which develops ways to “correct” for...