Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine

Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine
by Jim Downs
Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2021

We think we know the stories of medical progress. We know that during the 1854 London cholera outbreak, John Snow traced the origin of the epidemic to a water pump, which led to the birth of epidemiology. Florence Nightingale’s contributions to the care of soldiers in the Crimean War revolutionized medical hygiene, transforming hospitals from crucibles of infection to sanctuaries of recuperation. But these histories leave out key sources of what we now know about disease causation.

In this paradigm-shifting book, Jim Downs shows us how progress in the study of infectious disease resulted from the rise of the international slave trade, the expansion of colonialism, the Crimean War, the US Civil War, and Muslim migration. Downs uncovers how medical advances attributed to the genius of Western science were often due to how systematic oppression created built environments―plantations, slave ships, and battlefields―that enabled physicians to visualize and report both the cause and the spread of disease. Military physicians learned about the importance of air quality by monitoring Africans confined to the bottom of slave ships. Statisticians charted cholera outbreaks by observing Muslims in British-dominated territories returning from their annual pilgrimage. And doctors in the American South developed inoculations by harvesting vaccine matter on black children’s bodies.

Boldly argued and meticulously researched, Maladies of Empire reveals the fullest account of the true price of medical progress.

downs maladies empire.jpg, Dec 2020



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