The myth of innate racial differences between white and black people's bodies: Lessons from the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Abstract

In this commentary, I take up the question of why beliefs in fundamental, innate racial differences between Black and White people's bodies persist in medical discourse, despite evidence to the contrary. I locate the origin of some of these beliefs in the infamous yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1793. During that early public health crisis, White physicians and lay people erroneously thought that Black people were immune to yellow fever because of their race. I then highlight the efforts of Philadelphia's Black leaders during the epidemic-namely Absalom Jones and Richard Allen-to challenge the belief in fundamental and innate differences between Blacks and Whites. I conclude by asking us to consider how the false belief that there is something peculiar about Black people's bodies has become a feature, not an aberration, in the production of medical knowledge. Indeed, I point out how medical experimentation in the 20th century and in the marketing of new drugs in the 21st century have been buttressed by this persistent yet incorrect assumption that innate racial differences exist.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1339-1341
Number of pages3
JournalAmerican journal of public health
Volume109
Issue number10
DOIs
StatePublished - 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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