Breathing race into the machine The surprising career of the spirometer from plantation to genetics

Lundy Braun

Book - 2014

In the antebellum South, plantation physsicians 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 unlit for freedom. What is astonishing is that this example of racial thinking is anything but a historical relic. In Breathing 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, Victorian Britain to today. Routinely a factor in clinical diagnosis, 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 Machine helps us understand how race enters into science and shapes medical research and practice. -- from dust jacket.

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Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press [2014]
Main Author
Lundy Braun (author)
Item Description
"Portions of chapters 1 and 2 were previously published as "Spirometry, Measurement, and Race in the Nineteenth Century," Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 60 (2005): 135-169."
Physical Description
xxix, 271 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Measuring Vital Capacity
  • 1. "Inventing" the Spirometer: Working-Class Bodies in Victorian England
  • 2. Black Lungs and White Lungs: The Science of White Supremacy in the Nineteenth-Century United States
  • 3. The Professionalization of Physical Culture: Making and Measuring Whiteness
  • 4. Progress and Race: Vitality in Turn-of-the-Century Britain
  • 5. Globalizing Spirometry: The "Racial Factor" in Scientific Medicine
  • 6. Adjudicating Disability in the Industrial Worker
  • 7. Diagnosing Silicosis: Physiological Testing in South African Gold Mines
  • Epilogue: How Race Takes Root
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Library Journal Review

Racial bias can be found in even the most unassuming medical procedures, Braun (medical science, Brown Univ.; Racial Categories in Medical Practice: Are They Useful?) discovers when she begins researching the history of the spirometer. While the -device is often used by physicians to measure lung capacity, it was also used to attempt to -further oppress slaves in the post-Civil War era. Braun uncovers the history of the spirometer and the practice of "race correction"-reducing the measured values of the instrument based on race. She explains how "race correction" has become an industry standard, still used in the United States, the UK, and for a time in South Africa. The author's research is rich and detailed, providing a fascinating history of the appliance. She also explains the effect it has had not just in medical science but in the labor force, in which it became difficult for black people to file disability claims owing to the disparities in lung-capacity measurements. VERDICT This text will attract those with an interest in biomedical and disability history, as it highlights a lesser-known but common practice in medicine. However, the writing is academic and not always easy to access.-Caitlin Kenney, Niagara Falls P.L., NY (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.