Indigenous Peoples, tuberculosis research and changing ideas about race in the 1930s – CMAJ

Before the 1930s, many medical personnel, administrators and others in colonial settler societies considered race the deciding factor in who did and did not get tuberculosis (TB). Racial thinking came in 2 varieties. Both were rooted in white supremacy and in the belief that white bodies and Aboriginal bodies were fundamentally different. Virgin soil theory claimed that Indigenous Peoples, over time, could acquire resistance. Indigenous Peoples, in the language of the early 20th century, were not yet “tubercularized.” On the other hand, there was a theory of racial susceptibility that consigned Indigenous Peoples to a position of perpetual peril; simply being an Aboriginal person meant one was inherently susceptible to TB.1 The tuberculosis committee of the National Research Council of Canada concluded in 1926 that “it has long been known that Indians are far more susceptible to tuberculosis than are the White races of mankind.”2 Confidence in one theory or another, however, was born not from robust research on the susceptibility of Indigenous Peoples but out of deeply held beliefs in the inferiority of their bodies. For decades, neither theory met with much challenge.

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