Northwestern Events Calendar


"A Decided Inaptitude in his Constitution: Race, Slavery, and Disability in the Nineteenth Century British Empire"

When: Monday, May 17, 2021
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM Central

Where: Online

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Contact: Janet Hundrieser   847.491.3525

Group: Science in Human Culture Program - Klopsteg Lecture Series

Category: Lectures & Meetings



Suman Seth


"A Decided Inaptitude in his Constitution: Race, Slavery, and Disability in the Nineteenth Century British Empire"


This talk explores the relationships between race, slavery, medicine, statistics, and disability in mid nineteenth-century Britain. At its core are a series of reports on military medical statistics, principally authored by Alexander Tulloch, that would become the backbone for subsequent claims about the reality and numerical value of race. In his Statistical Reports, Tulloch made an argument for the inability of Africans to adapt to climates far removed from those of their homelands. “Enough has been stated,” he wrote in 1840, “to afford another striking instance how unfitted is the constitution of the Negro for any other climate than that in which he is the native.” White bodies, by contrast, were hyper-able; temperatures in Canada, for example, offered “a striking illustration how little the constitution of our countrymen is likely to be affected even by the severest climate to which they are exposed.” Africans, by Tulloch’s logic, could travel to relatively few places safely, while Europeans—committed to a range of settler colonial projects—could claim a swathe of the world as their domain, even if the tropics remained a graveyard.


Suman Seth is the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of the History of Science in the department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University and a former Co-Editor of the Journal Osiris. He received his Ph. D. in History from Princeton University in 2003. He published his first book, Crafting the Quantum: Arnold Sommerfeld and the Practice of Theory, 1890-1926 with MIT Press in 2010. His second book, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018. He is the editor of a special issue of Postcolonial Studies (2009), on “Science, Colonialism, Postcoloniality;” of a FOCUS section of Isis (2014) on “Re-Locating Race;” and—with Erika Milam—of a forthcoming issue (2021) of BJHS Themes on the Descent of Darwin. 

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