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Breathing Race into the Machine

Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics

Lundy Braun
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Breathing Race into the Machine
    Book Description:

    In the antebellum South, plantation physicians used a new medical device-the spirometer-to show that lung volume and therefore vital capacity were supposedly less in black slaves than in white citizens. At the end of the Civil War, a large study of racial difference employing the spirometer appeared to confirm the finding, which was then applied to argue that slaves were unfit for freedom. What is astonishing is that this example of racial thinking is anything but a historical relic.

    InBreathing Race into the Machine, science studies scholar Lundy Braun traces the little-known history of the spirometer to reveal the social and scientific processes by which medical instruments have worked to naturalize racial and ethnic differences, from Victorian Britain to today. Routinely a factor in clinical diagnoses, preemployment physicals, and disability estimates, spirometers are often "race corrected," typically reducing normal values for African Americans by 15 percent.

    An unsettling account of the pernicious effects of racial thinking that divides people along genetic lines,Breathing Race into the Machinehelps us understand how race enters into science and shapes medical research and practice.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4099-1
    Subjects: Health Sciences, Technology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION Measuring Vital Capacity
    (pp. xiii-xxx)

    On March 25, 1999, the front page of theBaltimore Sunfeatured a startling headline, “Racial basis for Asbestos Lawsuits? Owens Corning Seeks More Stringent Standards for blacks.” According to the article, the American insulation manufacturer Owens Corning was engaged in another legal maneuver to limit disability claims. This time it would be more difficult for African Americans in Baltimore to qualify for compensation.¹

    Home to former shipyards and Bethlehem Steel’s plant at Sparrow’s Point, Baltimore had been the site of endless legal wrangling in a massive lawsuit against asbestos manufacturers for decades. Over the years, lawyers for Owens Corning...

  5. 1 “Inventing” the Spirometer Working-Class Bodies in Victorian England
    (pp. 1-26)

    With a landed aristocracy in crisis, labor in turmoil, and the specter of revolution across the English Channel still poignant for the ruling classes, the first half of the nineteenth century in England was a period of acute cultural anxiety. The industrial economy was expanding, but so were urbanization and overcrowding. As approximately one-eighth of England’s population crowded into London in the 1830s, bourgeois urbanites came ever closer to epidemic diseases rampant among the unruly working class.

    Disease, however, was not just restricted to the seemingly degenerate bodies and lax morals of the lower classes. As literary critic Bruce Haley...

  6. 2 Black Lungs and White Lungs The Science of White Supremacy in the Nineteenth-Century United States
    (pp. 27-54)

    Coincident with its transnational dissemination, spirometric measurement became racialized across the Atlantic in the “natural laboratory” of the United States. As in Britain, the spirometer would travel across the distinct but sometimes overlapping domains of statistics, anthropometry, medicine, and life insurance, shaping technological innovation and producing new “truths” about the lungs of black people. Such nineteenth-century racial “truths” would frame thinking about difference in ways that persist in the twenty-first century.

    The notion that blacks had weaker lungs than whites had a special place in the early American psyche. The first articulation of this view can be found in Thomas...

  7. 3 The Professionalization of Physical Culture Making and Measuring Whiteness
    (pp. 55-82)

    At the same time as Civil War physicians and statisticians were inscribing pathology onto the bodies of African Americans, midcentury physical culturalists took up spirometric measurement. Enmeshed in the spirit of religious revivalism, physical culture was a social movement centered on cultivation of the fitness of a white race that was beset with anxieties about mass immigration from Ireland and southern and eastern Europe. According to historian David Roediger, “the state of ‘conclusive’ whiteness” that played out in various social domains “was approached gradually and messily.”¹ What role did anthropometry and the physiological sciences play in ordering this messiness?


  8. 4 Progress and Race Vitality in Turn-of-the-Century Britain
    (pp. 83-108)

    The masses were restive. The revolutions of 1848 were sweeping the Continent, threatening to spread across the Channel and disrupt the fragile social order in Britain. In February, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published theCommunist Manifesto. In April, Chartists descended on London to demand suffrage for working-class men. In July, the Young Irelanders took up arms. The moment felt like a crisis of capital—if not of civilization—and the middle classes responded with fear, anxiety, and arrogance, urging patience and discipline on the angry crowds. Charles Kingsley—whose writings were foundational to the social, and religious movement later...

  9. 5 Globalizing Spirometry The “Racial Factor” in Scientific Medicine
    (pp. 109-138)

    Hutchinson’s elegant machine and the “rule” around which he organized the meaning of vital capacity measurements captivated research-oriented scientists throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed, his attempt to standardize vital capacity stood the test of time. The transnational infrastructure for manufacture and refinement of the spirometer that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century is a testament to his achievements.

    Yet uptake of the device was mostly restricted to physiology or anthropometry research laboratories and physical education programs. Its use among nineteenth-century clinicians was limited. Physicians were not actively opposed to the spirometer; they simply did not find the...

  10. 6 Adjudicating Disability in the Industrial Worker
    (pp. 139-166)

    J.a. Myers, respiratory specialist at the Mayo Clinic, began advocating for spirometry in preemployment examinations in the 1920s. With workers pitted against industrial employers and company physicians, workers’ compensation—still in its infancy in the United States—was already a polarized terrain. Like other medical experts, Myers viewed spirometric measurement as a tool to manage malingering.¹ Although a promising innovation, with weak trade unions and a politically muddled patchwork of state-based approaches to compensation, the spirometer would not be used systematically in industrial medicine until much later in the century.²

    The situation differed in Britain. In the aftermath of the...

  11. 7 Diagnosing Silicosis Physiological Testing in South African Gold Mines
    (pp. 167-194)

    Spirometric measurement became racialized in South Africa through different pathways than in Britain or the United States. Global knowledge exchanges, local histories, statutory segregation, and the biology of miners’ phthisis (or silicosis) would shape the uses and meanings of spirometry in South Africa. With the embedding of racial preferences in the compensation system, long before apartheid spirometry became a tool for measuring lung capacity and gaining compensation exclusively for white miners. in South Africa, the spirometer was, for a time, racially coded “white.”

    As discussed in chapter 5, Eustace Cluver and colleagues deployed spirometric measurement in the early twentieth century...

  12. EPILOGUE How Race Takes Root
    (pp. 195-206)

    When I asked physicians about the importance of the spirometer to their practice, I received a variety of responses. Some used spirometry as one element in the medical examinations. Others used the instrument’s readings as a rigid cutoff to diagnose disease. One medical resident told me, “We don’t ever really think about it [reference standards]. All we do is look at the FEV₁ and FEV₁/FVC%, and if it’s below the cutoff, we have a diagnosis.” Few physicians knew which reference values had been built into the spirometer or how the machine handled race correction. One senior researcher insisted that she...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 207-258)
  14. Index
    (pp. 259-272)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 273-273)