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Race and health. A fascinating article on the history of medicine

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Rony Brauman

Medical doctor, specialized in tropical medicine and epidemiology. Involved in humanitarian action since 1977, he has been on numerous missions, mainly in contexts of armed conflicts and IDP situations. President of Médecins sans Frontières from 1982 to1994, he also teaches at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) and is a regular contributor to Alternatives Economiques. He has published several books and articles, including "Guerre humanitaires ? Mensonges et Intox" (Textuel, 2018), "La Médecine Humanitaire" (PUF, 2010), "Penser dans l'urgence" (Editions du Seuil, 2006) and "Utopies Sanitaires" (Editions Le Pommier, 2000).

An article entitled "Médecines du corps noir" [Medicine and the black body], published on the La vie des idées website on 27 April, discusses three American history books on the origins of medicine in the United States in the context of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuriesR. A. Hogarth, Medicalizing Blackness ; D. C. Owens, Medical Bondage ; D. R. Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh. Between experimentation and resistance, the history of relationships between race and health illustrates the decisive role played by African slaves.

This article explains that modern-day gynaecology is founded on medical experiments carried out on black women at the start of the 19th century, and later on young Irish immigrant women whose bodies, like those of black women, were, on the basis of race and class, also thought to be “strange and pathological” (Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage, p. 106).  The article also discusses the contradictory representations of the black body, considered inferior but worthy of scientific study, as well as many other points which dissociate the history of medicine and the history of medical care.

Humanitarians often use the services of anthropologists to help them understand the "representations of diseases" (AIDS, tuberculosis, Ebola) supposedly conveyed by the societies in which they appear. There are a number of Crash publications on this subject, including "L'Exotisme humanitaire", a blog article by Marc Le Pape published in 2012 which analyses the often erroneous culturalist convictions used to explain the pejorative evaluation of a type of behaviour, drawing on AIDS treatment and care on MSF's Homa Bay project in Kenya to support his arguments. Rather than culturalist convictions, he prefers the notion of  cultural curiosity in order to “go beyond a strictly functional relationship with the operating environment, and […] as a defence against the certitudes that commonly surround medical practice». 

To cite this content :
Rony Brauman, Race and health. A fascinating article on the history of medicine , 7 May 2018, URL : https://msf-crash.org/en/blog/medicine-and-public-health/race-and-health-fascinating-article-history-medicine

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