Suman Seth on Climate, Medicine, and Race in the Eighteenth-Century British Empire

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Click on the images below to open the gallery and view them full-size.


Welcome to the thirteenth episode of the Global History Podcast, which is also the next installment in our series on ‘Global Histories of Health, Medicine, and Disease in the Early Modern World’.

Today, we’d like to welcome Suman Seth, the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of the History of Science in the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University. * In his own words, Professor Seth “works on the social, cultural, and intellectual history of science and medicine. His interests include the history of medicine, race, and colonialism, the physical sciences (particularly quantum theory), & gender and science.

Professor Seth is the author of Crafting the Quantum: Arnold Sommerfeld and the Practice of Theory, 1890-1926 (MIT Press, 2010) and Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2018). ** His editorial work includes serving as guest editor of a special issue of Postcolonial Studies, titled “Science, Colonialism, Postcolonialism” (2009) and a “Focus” section of the Journal Isis, titled, “Re-Locating Race”. He is also the co-editor of Osiris.

About three weeks ago, Chase spoke with Professor Seth over skype about his book, Difference and Disease, discussing topics including ideas about the process of ‘seasoning’ undergone when a person migrated from one kind of climate to another, gender and susceptibility to disease, and the entanglement of transatlantic slavery and abolition with ideas about race and medicine. Listen on to find out more.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or comments about this episode, or would like to pitch us an idea for a new episode, feel free to email us at theglobalhistorypodcast@gmail.com, or send us a message on our website’s contact form, facebook, twitter, or instagram. If you would like to consult further resources on global history, feel free to visit our ‘Further Resources‘ page.

CORRECTIONS: * In the audio, Suman Seth’s title is stated as ‘professor’, but his full title is the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of the History of Science. ** The book title stated in the audio introduction, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and Locality in the Eighteenth-Century British Empire, should be Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire.

IMAGE 1: A sea of trade and empires. ‘A New and Correct Chart of the Trading Part of the West Indies’, 1794, in The English Pilot. Describing the West-India Navigation, from Hudson’s Bay to the River Amazones… (London: Mount and Davidson, 1794), Book 4, 1794 edition. Dimensions: Object Height: 48 cm; Object Width: 81 cm. Scale: 1: 5,700,000. List Number: 12434.067. Pub List Number: 12434.000. Image Number: 12434067.jp2. David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. © 2000 by Cartography Associates. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).

IMAGE 2: An expanding Atlantic empire. Detail of several Atlantic islands from John Senex, ‘A New Map of the English Empire in the Ocean of America or West Indies’, 1721, in A New General Atlas, Containing a Geographical and Historical Account of All the Empires, Kingdoms, and other Dominions of the World… (London: John Senex, 1721). Dimensions: Object Height: 52 cm; Object Width: 62 cm. List Number: 10014.262. Pub List Number: 10014.000. Image Number: 10014262.jp2. David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. © 2000 by Cartography Associates. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).

IMAGE 3: An important British island colony in the Caribbean. Detail: John Senex, ‘A New Map of the Island of Jamaica’, from ‘A New Map of the English Empire in the Ocean of America or West Indies’, 1721, in A New General Atlas (London: John Senex, 1721). David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. © 2000 by Cartography Associates. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).

IMAGE 4: Detail: Henry Popple, ‘Kingston Harbour in Jamaica’, from Sheet 16 of A Map of the British Empire in America with the French and Spanish Settlements adjacent thereto… (London: Willm. Henry Toms & R.W. Seale, 1746). Engraver or Printer: B. Baron, C. Lempriere, W.H. Toms. Dimensions: Object Height: 49 cm; Object Width: 30 cm. Scale: 1 : 2,000,000. List Number: 5810.032a. Pub List Number: 5810.000. Image Number: 5810032a. David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. © 2000 by Cartography Associates. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).

IMAGE 5: Transatlantic slavery was deeply intertwined with race and medicine in the eighteenth-century British Empire. ‘Plantation Yard and Slave Village, Jamaica, 1758’, published in Barry W. Higman, Jamaica Surveyed: Plantation Maps and Plans of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Institute of Jamaica Publications Ltd., 1988), fig. 4.13, pp. 95-9; original located in the National Library of Jamaica. Description: “Shows Parnassas Estate, Clarendon parish. Slave houses on left, sugar works on right; owner/manager’s house in upper right. (slide of image, courtesy of Barry W. Higman).” Identifier: NW0086. Downloaded from Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora. Image: Public Domain. Metadata: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

IMAGE 6: In what ways was susceptibility to disease in the eighteenth century differentiated based on race and gender? Agostino Brunias (1728–1796), Italian, active in Britain (1758–70; 1777-80s), ‘West Indian Creole woman, with her Black Servant’, ca. 1780. Oil on canvas. Dimensions: Support (PTG): 12 x 9 7/8 inches (30.5 x 25.1 cm). Accession Number: B1981.25.82. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 7: In what ways were the medical constitutions of ‘European’ inhabitants of the Caribbean conceptualized differently from those of ‘African’ inhabitants? Agostino Brunias (1728–1796), Italian, active in Britain (1758–70; 1777-80s), ‘Planter and his Wife, with a Servant’, ca. 1780. Oil on canvas. Dimensions: Support (PTG): 12 x 9 3/4 inches (30.5 x 24.8 cm). Accession Number: B1981.25.81. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 8: ‘Harbour Street, Kingston’, in James Hakewill, A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica, from Drawings Made in the Years 1820 and 1821 (London, 1825; reprinted, Kingston, Jamaica and San Francisco, 1990), plate 4. Copy in Archives and Special Collections, University of Miami Library. Description: “[View] looking eastward. James Hakewill (1778–1843) was an English architect known for illustrated publications. Several of his works relating to Jamaica can be found in T. Barringer, G. Forrester, and B. Martinez-Ruiz, Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and his Worlds (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art in association with Yale University Press, 2007), passim.” Identifier: HAKE6. Downloaded from Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora. Image: Public Domain. Metadata: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

IMAGE 9: In what ways were slavery and abolition entangled with ideas about medicine and race in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? ‘Sugar Cane Harvest, Jamaica, 1820s’, in H. T. De La Beche, Notes on the Present Condition of the Negroes in Jamaica (London, 1825), frontispiece. (Copy in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University). Description: “Caption: ‘Jamaica Negroes Cutting Cane in their Working Dresses.’ Men and women in first gang cutting cane; supervised by a black driver with his staff.” Identifier: NW0055. Downloaded from Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora. Image: Public Domain. Metadata: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

IMAGE 10: ‘Sugar Cane Cultivation, British West Indies (Jamaica?), 1840s’, in The Illustrated London News (June 9, 1849), vol. 14, p. 388; see also Ballou’s Pictorial (Feb. 10, 1855), pp. 84-85. Description: “Field gang of men and women, digging cane holes in preparation for planting. Image accompanies article, Sugar Cultivation in the West Indies. Although about a decade after slave emancipation in the British West Indies, this scene (one of four in the article) can easily serve for the later slave period. This same illustration and accompanying article appeared in Ballou’s Pictorial (Boston); however, the Ballou article specifies that the locale is Jamaica and that the engraving was made from the designs of an artist who resided for a long time in that island.” Identifier: NW0272. Downloaded from Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora. Image: Public Domain. Metadata: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

IMAGE 11: A Changing Political Landscape in South Asia. Edinburgh Geographical Institute, ‘Map of India under the British East India Company, comparing 1765 and 1805’ (1907), in J.G. Bartholomew, Imperial Gazetteer of India (New edition, published under the authority of His Majesty’s Secretary of State for India in Council. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907-1909). Downloaded via Wikimedia Commons.

IMAGE 12: An Expanding Territorial Empire. Edinburgh Geographical Institute, ‘Map of India under the British East India Company, comparing 1837 with 1857’ (1907), in J.G. Bartholomew, Imperial Gazetteer of India (New edition, published under the authority of His Majesty’s Secretary of State for India in Council. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907-1909). Downloaded via Wikimedia Commons.

IMAGE 13: The British Empire in South Asia in the early twentieth century. Edinburgh Geographical Institute, ‘Map of the British Indian Empire from Imperial Gazetteer of India’ (1909), in J.G. Bartholomew, Imperial Gazetteer of India (New edition, published under the authority of His Majesty’s Secretary of State for India in Council. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907-1909). Downloaded via Wikimedia Commons.

IMAGE 14: Continuing influences from Hippocrates? Title Page, John Arbuthnot, An Essay Concerning the Effects of Air on Human Bodies (London: Printed for J. Tonson, 1733). Physical Description: xi pages, 2 unnumbered leaves, 224 pages ; (8vo). Notes: Signatures: A-P8. Shelfmark: EPB/B/11146. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 15: An infamous duel between two medical practitioners, recorded in print. Title Page, John Williams and Bennet Parker, Essays on the Bilious Fever: Containing the Different Opinions of Those Eminent Physicians John Williams and Parker Bennet, of Jamaica: Which Was the Cause of a Duel, and Terminated in the Death of Both (Jamaica and London : T. Waller, 1752). Physical Description: v, 1 unnumbered page, 76 pages; 19 cm. Shelfmark: EPB/B/54935. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 16: In what ways did eighteenth-century writers link disease with transatlantic slavery? Title Page, [attributed to] James Grainger, An essay on the more common West-India diseases; and the remedies which that country itself produces : To which are added, some hints on the management, &c. of negroes (London : T. Becket and P. A. De Hondt, 1764). Physical Description: 8 unnumbered pages, 75 pages, 1 unnumbered page ; 22 cm (8vo). Shelfmark: MST.9. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 17: The ship, traveling between ‘hot countries’, as a space of medical practice and knowledge-making. Title Page, William Northcote, The marine practice of physic and surgery, including that in the hot countries, particularly useful to all who visit the East and West Indies, or the coast of Africa : to which is added, Pharmacopoeia marina, and some brief directions to be observed by the sea-surgeon in an engagement … (London: Printed by W. and J. Richardson for T. Becket and P.A. de Hondt …, 1770). Physical Description: 2 volumes ; 21 cm (8vo). Shelfmark: /NOR Vol. 1. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 18: How was health maintained during ‘long voyages to hot countries’? Title Page, John Clark, Observations on the Diseases in Long Voyages to Hot Countries, and Particularly on Those Which Prevail in the East Indies (London: Printed for D. Wilson and G. Nicol, 1773). Physical Description: XVI, 366 [1] p. ; 8º. Universidad Complutense de Madrid, downloaded from HathiTrust Digital Library. Public Domain.

IMAGE 19: Warfare in the Caribbean, and its connections with disease. Title Page, Thomas Dancer, A Brief History of the Late Expedition against Fort San Juan, So Far as it Relates to the Diseases of the Troops; Together with Some Observations on Climate, Infection, and Contagion; and several of the endemial complaints of the West-Indies (Kingston, Jamaica: D. Douglass & W. Aikman, 1781). Physical Description: 63, [1] p. ; 23 cm. (4to). NLM Unique ID: 2551002R. United States National Library of Medicine, Digital Collections. Public Domain.

IMAGE 20: A medical treatise which explicitly mentions ‘tropical diseases’ in its title. Title Page, Benjamin Moseley, A Treatise on Tropical Diseases; And on the Climate of the West-Indies (London: T. Cadell, 1787). Physical Description: 1 unnumbered blank leaf, 2 unnumbered leaves, xix, 544 pages, 1 unnumbered blank leaf ; 22 cm. London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Library & Archives, downloaded from the Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 21: ‘Seasoning’ was an important part of medical discourse on migration to ‘tropical’ climates in the eighteenth century. Note the reference to ‘new settlers’ here. Title Page, Robert Thomas, Medical Advice to the Inhabitants of Warm Climates, on the Domestic Treatment of All the Diseases Incidental Therein: With a Few Useful Hints to New Settlers, for the Preservation of Health, and the Prevention of Sickness (London: Printed for J. Johnson, St. Paul’s Church-Yard; J. Strahan, Strand; and W. Richardson, Royal-Exchange, 1790). Physical Description: 8 unnumbered pages, xxi, 1 unnumbered page, 342 pages, 4 unnumbered pages. University of Bristol Library, downloaded from the Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 22: In what ways was medicine entangled with the British military? Title Page, John Bell, An Inquiry into the Causes Which Produce, and the Means of Preventing Diseases among British Officers, Soldiers, and Others in the West Indies (London: Printed for J. Murray, 1791). Physical description: xv, 180 pages ; 22 cm (8vo). Biographical Note: “John Bell MD, formerly surgeon of the 94th and 5th regiment of foot (promoted in 1784 according to London Medical Journal, 1784, Volume 5).” Shelfmark: EPB RAMC /BEL. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 23: Disease and the British Army, in the metropole, in the colonies, and on the sea. Title Page, Thomas Dickson Reide, A View of the Diseases of the Army in Great Britain, America, the West Indies, and on Board of King’s Ships and Transports, from the Beginning of the Late War to the Present Time (London: J. Johnson , 1793). Physical Description: xvi, 396, [1] p., [3] en bl. ; 8º. Universidad Complutense de Madrid, downloaded from HathiTrust Digital Library. Public Domain.

IMAGE 24: Title Page, Leonard Gillespie, Advice to the commanders and officers of His Majesty’s fleet serving in the West Indies on the preservation of the health of seamen (London: J. Cuthell, 1798). Physical Description: vii, 31 pages. The University of Leeds Library, downloaded from the Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 25: Note the use of southern Spain as a comparison for the West Indies. Title Page, Robert Deverell, Andalusia; or, notes, tending to shew that the yellow fever of the West Indies, and of Andalusia in Spain, was a disease well known to the ancients; and that they assigned a cause for it, and used effective means for the prevention and cure of it, not hitherto attempted in our time. (This treatise is not intended for publication.) ([London]: [S. Gosnell], [1805]). Physical Description: 2 unnumbered leaves, 155 pages : illustrations, plates, maps ; (4to). Copy 1 Note: “There is a note written on the cover, in French, possibly in the hand of the author, commending this book to the notice of Napoleon.” Shelfmark: 20339/C. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 26: Note the geographical inclusion of Newfoundland with other marshy areas in Europe, Africa, and the West Indies. Title Page, Robert Robertson, Observations on fevers which arrive from marsh miasmata, and from other causes, in Europe, Africa, the West Indies, and Newfoundland : with occasional remarks on the principal diseases incident to seamen (London, 1807). Physical Description: 4 volumes ; 22 cm (8vo). The University of Glasgow Library, downloaded from the Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 27: Note the broad range of territories included under ‘all tropical climates’, including China and the Mediterranean. Title Page, R. W. Bampfield, A practical essay on hemeralopia, or night-blindness, commonly called nyctalopia : as it affects seamen and others, in the East and West Indies, China, the Mediterranean, and all tropical climates ; in which a successful method of curing the disease is detailed ([London]: [Printed by G. Woodfall], 1812). Note: “Extract from the fifth volume of the Medico-chirurgical transactions” (1814). Physical Description: pages [32]-66 ; 8vo (22 cm). Shelfmark: 52887/P. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 28: How were so-called ‘European constitutions’ influenced by ‘tropical climates’? James Johnson, Influence of tropical climates on European constitutions ; being a treatise on the principal diseases incidental to Europeans in the East and West Indies, Mediterranean, and coast of Africa (London: Printed for Thomas & George Underwood, etc., 1821). Physical Description: xiv pages, 1 unnumbered leaf, 544 pages ; 21 cm. London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Library & Archives, downloaded from the Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 29: Note the reference to ‘strangers’ in the West Indies from ‘temperate climates’. Title Page, Nodes Dickinson, Observations on the inflammatory endemic, incidental to strangers in the West Indies from temperate climates commonly called the yellow fever … to which is added an appendix, containing abstracts of official reports upon West India fevers (London: E. Howlett for Callow, Underwood, etc., 1819). Physical Description: xiv pages, 1 unnumbered leaf, 216 pages ; (8vo). Shelfmark: 58968/B. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

IMAGE 30: The reference to ‘statistical pathology’ here perhaps hints at the link between statistics and medicine in the nineteenth-century British Empire. Title Page, Colin Chisholm, A manual of the climate and diseases of tropical countries : in which a practical view of the statistical pathology and of the history and treatment of the diseases of those countries is attempted to be given : calculated chiefly as a guide to the young medical practitioner on his first resorting to those countries (London: Burgess and Hill, 1822). Physical Description: 11, 5, 232 pages, 1 unnumbered leaf of plates (frontispiece) : illustrations ; 23 cm. Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, downloaded from the Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

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