chapter  2
29 Pages

Western medicine and racial constitutions: surgeon John Atkins’ theory of polygenism and sleepy distemper in the 1730s

ByNorris Saakwa-Mante

A new, natural-historical, essentially non-theological conception of race emerged in Europe and the British Isles from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century. Three developments at least were responsible for the emergence of this new naturalhistorical conception of race. First, the possibility of truly global travel following the first circumnavigation of the Earth was a social change with enormous consequences. Second, a new awareness of the different physical appearance of the world’s people derived from new transcontinental population movements (e.g. the Atlantic Slave Trade and European emigration to the New World) had a major effect. Third, the application of the values and naturalising epistemology of the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution (however defined)1 to the different physical appearance of the human species as a whole, made possible a new theoretical vocabulary for fabricating race, or gave new meanings to old terms. These developments, among others, produced the conditions for the emergence of race.2