Book Release of Prof. Lundy Braun's Breathing Race into the Machine

March 26, 2014

This February, Royce Family Professor in Teaching Excellence, professor of medical science and Africana studies, and a member of the Science and Technology Studies Program, Lundy Braun released her new book Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics

In her book, Lundy Braun traces the little-known history of the spirometer to reveal the ways medical instruments have worked to naturalize racial and ethnic differences, from Victorian Britain to today. An unsettling account of the pernicious effects of racial thinking that divides people along genetic lines, this book helps us understand how race enters into science and shapes medical research and practice. 

 In the antebellum South, plantation physicians used a new medical device—the spirometer—to show that lung volume and therefore vital capacity were supposedly less in black slaves than in white citizens. At the end of the Civil War, a large study of racial difference employing the spirometer appeared to confirm the finding, which was then applied to argue that slaves were unfit for freedom. What is astonishing is that this example of racial thinking is anything but a historical relic.

In Breathing Race into the Machine, science studies scholar Lundy Braun traces the little-known history of the spirometer to reveal the social and scientific processes by which medical instruments have worked to naturalize racial and ethnic differences, from Victorian Britain to today. Routinely a factor in clinical diagnoses, preemployment physicals, and disability estimates, spirometers are often “race corrected,” typically reducing normal values for African Americans by 15 percent.

An unsettling account of the pernicious effects of racial thinking that divides people along genetic lines, Breathing Race into the Machine helps us understand how race enters into science and shapes medical research and practice. 

University of Pennsylvania Professor Dorothy Roberts calls the book"Essential reading for everyone concerned about the impact of race on science and technology."

Lundy Braun is a Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Africana Studies and a member of the STS Program. Her research takes an interdisciplinary approach to analyze the structural causes of health inequality. Projects include 1) the transnational circulation of knowledge about racial difference, lung capacity measurements, and respiratory disease in the 19th and 20th centuries; 2) the socio-political and economic production of invisibility about occupational disease, especially those due to asbestos and silica exposure in the mines of South Africa, and the consequences of invisibility for global health inequality; and 3) race, genomics, and health inequality. She has participated in national and international workshops on the current debate over race, genetics, and health. She has been a recipient of a Professional Development Award from the NSF; a Fulbright Senior Specialist in Public Health at the University of Cape Town, South Africa; and a Scholar Award from the NSF.