“Smaller Lung Capacity of the Colored Race”: The Debate on Asthma and Hay Fever Susceptibility, 1874–1922

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 11:30 AM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Ijeoma Kola, Columbia University
In an 1891 report regarding hay fever, Dr. Horace Ivins reported, “I know of no thoroughly authenticated case occurring among the negro race”. Ivins was mistaken; there were a total of three reported asthma and hay fever cases among African Americans in the nineteenth century. By 1884, when the Medical Record published the first instance of asthma in a black patient, most physicians believed that blacks were immune from asthma. Throughout the 1800s, doctors conceptualized asthma and hay fever as stress-related diseases affecting the urban, aristocratic elite, who had more civilized lifestyles and delicate constitutions than poor blacks.

Racialized notions of health and disease were not uncommon at the turn of the twentieth century, as the survival of newly emancipated blacks was a commonly debated topic of the Progressive Era. Frederick Hoffman’s “Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro” identified various statistics indicating inherent weakness of black bodies, including “the smaller lung capacity of the colored race”. Though few white scholars publicly challenged Hoffman’s findings, his thesis contradicts claims by asthma doctors about the strength of black bodies and their immunity to asthma.

By juxtaposing how scholars navigated inconsistencies between observed biological differences between races, assertions of asthma as a disease of the elite, and the presence of asthma and hay fever in black patients, this paper highlights the debates about black susceptibility to asthma and hay fever at the turn of the twentieth century.

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