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Difference and Disease
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Book description

Before the nineteenth century, travellers who left Britain for the Americas, West Africa, India and elsewhere encountered a medical conundrum: why did they fall ill when they arrived, and why - if they recovered - did they never become so ill again? The widely accepted answer was that the newcomers needed to become 'seasoned to the climate'. Suman Seth explores forms of eighteenth-century medical knowledge, including conceptions of seasoning, showing how geographical location was essential to this knowledge and helped to define relationships between Britain and her far-flung colonies. In this period, debates raged between medical practitioners over whether diseases changed in different climes. Different diseases were deemed characteristic of different races and genders, and medical practitioners were thus deeply involved in contestations over race and the legitimacy of the abolitionist cause. In this innovative and engaging history, Seth offers dramatically new ways to understand the mutual shaping of medicine, race, and empire.


‘In this clever and often startling book, Suman Seth re-evaluates the complex histories of tropical medicine and colonial politics through a fascinating study of the plantation systems of the eighteenth-century Caribbean. These new histories offer a fresh perspective on the meaning and effects of the slave economy and the roles of physicians, merchants and naturalists in the forging of Atlantic racism.'

Simon Schaffer - University of Cambridge

‘In this postcolonial history of colonial medicine Suman Seth addresses the question as to why race emerged as a critical axis of difference in the late eighteenth century. His detailed exploration of ‘race-medicine' demonstrates the coming-into-being of racial categories and binaries through the division of the world into tropical and temperate zones, places of familiarity and strangeness. Difference and Disease marks an important addition to our understanding of race making in the imperial world.'

Catherine Hall - University College London

‘Suman Seth's brilliantly forensic analysis goes further than any previous work in demonstrating the importance of medicine in the formation of racial thinking in early British colonialism. This impressive scholarship demands close reading from scholars of knowledge, prejudice and the body, from science studies to Atlantic history.'

James Delbourgo - Rutgers University, New Jersey

‘Suman Seth’s Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire is a well-researched, focused, eloquently phrased, and original work that both academics and students can use for teaching or further writing purposes.’

Eszter Ureczky Source: Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies

‘Seth has written a book of great value for scholars in a nest of related historical fields. Simply from the standpoint of the history of race, its contribution is quite singular.’

Jonathan Marks Source: Isis

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  • 1 - ‘The Same Diseases Here as in Europe’? Health and Locality Before 1700
    pp 25-56


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