The Strange Case of Hannah West: Skin Colour and the Search for Racial Difference

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This article examines the strange case of Hannah West, a 'very fair female of the white race of mankind' who had patches of black skin upon her body. A closer glance at William Charles Wells's 1818 posthumous publication of her case, Account of A female of the white race of mankind, part of whose skin resembles that of a Negro, exposes the process through which Wells crafted an incipient theory of natural selection that was based upon the belief that innate racial differences between blacks and whites were a result of generational adaptations to specific disease environments. Finally, this article demonstrates how Wells maintained Hannah West's whiteness, despite the potential for her skin to disrupt commonly held associations between skin colour and race. Rather than casting her as a racially transformative figure, Wells used her case to not only reify but also reaffirm the distinctiveness of black and white bodies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)557-572
Number of pages16
JournalSocial History of Medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2016


  • Atlantic world
  • Medicine
  • Nineteenth century
  • Race
  • Skin
  • William Charles Wells

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • History


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