The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia

In this lucid and original book, Warwick Anderson offers the first comprehensive history of Australian medical and scientific ideas about race and place.

In nineteenth-century Australia, the main commentators on race and biological differences were doctors. The medical profession entertained serious anxieties about ‘racial degeneration’ of the white population in the new land. They feared non-white races as reservoirs of disease, and they held firm beliefs on the baneful influence of the tropics on the health of Europeans.

Gradually these matters became the province of public health and biological science. In the 1930s anthropologists claimed ‘race’ as their special interest, until eventually the edifice of racial classification collapsed under its own proliferating contradictions.

The Cultivation of Whiteness examines the notion of ‘whiteness’ as a flexible category in scientific and public debates. This is the first time such an analytic framework has been used anywhere in the history of medicine or of science. Anderson also provides the first full account of experimentation in the 1920s and 1930s on Aboriginal people in the central deserts.

This very readable book draws on European and American work on the development of racial thought and on the history of representations of the body. As the first extensive (and entertaining) historical survey of ideas about the peopling of Australia, it will help to reshape debate on race, ethnicity, citizenship and environment.

A very impressive work, providing a clear, fresh and cogent account of some of the major themes of Australian history: settlement in a new land, adaptation to novel conditions, the emergence of a new ‘type’, the development of nationalism, the fate of Aboriginal people, and the significance of scientific racism. Importantly, it makes specialized material accessible to the general reader.

Henry Reynolds

Warwick Anderson, a medical doctor and historian of science, was founder of the Centre for the Study of Health and Society at the University of Melbourne. He now teaches at the University of California at San Francisco and Berkeley. At UCSF he directs the program in the history of the health sciences and the campus humanities centre.