The Ethnicity of Disease

This week’s readings focused on the role of ethnicity in public health, namely the way that a certain people were blamed almost entirely for the spread of disease in an area. It seems expected that this would be a prevalent way of thinking in bygone eras, yet certain prejudices are, shockingly enough, alive today. From the first waves of immigrants to those arriving in the past decades, the readings detail the role of preconceived beliefs on theories of health.

The fact that others can blame a group of people for the outbreak of disease relies on the notion that some people are better than others. Matthew Jacobson’s chapters recount the conclusions of highly regarded scholars, such as Samuel Morton, Arthur Comte de Gobineau and James Crowles Prichard, of the superiority of the white race, and the subsequent inferiority of everyone else. Not only were other races physically unappealing in their perspective, they were mentally and socially underdeveloped. As time went on, this viewpoint was not limited to people of “uncivilized” countries but included all races that didn’t fit the stereotype. In the early nineteenth century, when the immigrant population in America increased exponentially, all people not of Anglo-Saxon origin were considered inferior, particularly the Irish and the Italians.

Not only were the Irish and Italians genetically inferior to the Anglo-Saxon stock, they were also predisposed to spreading deadly disease. According to Alan Kraut, much of the blame for the outbreak of polio fell on the Italians’ shoulders. Immigrants in general were highly suspect, regarded as carriers of disease from the cesspool of over-packed ships that brought them into the country, but Italians were on an especially low rung of the social hierarchy. They were described as “huddled together in miserable apartments in filth and rags, without the slightest regard to decency and health, they present a picture of squalid existence degrading to any civilization and a menace to the whole community.” In addition to their living conditions, their old-country customs, such as kissing the dead, were severely frowned upon as unhealthy.

Though the Italians and the filth they lived in were considered to be the major culprits of polio, and particularly infuriating ones at that because of the way they resisted interference by public health officials trying to contain the disease, it was eventually discovered that polio did not come from dirt. The experience of the Italians and other immigrant groups as a whole parallels the case of an individual widely known as Typhoid Mary.

Typhoid Mary’s infamous story goes that she infected hundreds of people by spreading her disease through the food she cooked and constantly eluding authorities who tried to contain her. Leavitt, however, seeks to tell Typhoid Mary’s untold story, namely that she was incarcerated for no reason at all. Typhoid Mary never actually had typhoid; she was merely a carrier of the disease and would only be a threat to other carriers. Yet she was subjected to capture, quarantine and humiliating tests, and upon being granted the release she fought for on the grounds that she was never to work as a cook, and breaking that promise, she was quarantined once more and never lived as a free woman again.

Mary’s story is a frightening one when we consider the lengths that officials took to secure their agenda. The measures they took were in the best interest of the general public, but that doesn’t change the fact that a person’s individual liberties were sacrificed for that goal, not to mention that accounts of her disease were greatly exaggerated. This seems to suggest that Mary, a coarse woman belonging to the working class, was somehow subhuman, and not granted the same rights as others.

These seem to be issues that belong to another day and age, but disease-related racial and ethnic prejudice is still around. The unrest Kraut refers to, when a mob of angry Haitian-Americans protested a policy which prohibited them from donating blood on the baseless assumption that a large percentage of Haitians were carriers of HIV, occurred a mere 12 years ago, in 1990. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart clip shows John Hodgeman reporting on the connection between illegal immigrants and disease such as leprosy and tuberculosis. Though the show is poking fun and these ridiculous claims, and decisive data clearly shows that the facts they are referencing are erroneous, this doesn’t change the fact that the news media literally reported that there have been 7,000 cases of leprosy in the past three years. The only redeeming thing we might say about today is that, instead of calling these people scholars, we refer to them as bigots, and regard their views with incredulity and scorn.


This entry was posted in Week 10 (11/12). Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Ethnicity of Disease