The southern take on race

By Mark Dapin

Is there a concept of race specific to the southern hemisphere? Warwick Anderson wants to find out.
Image of Warwick Anderson with Fore people in Papua New Guinea, 2003

Professor Warwick Anderson is entitled to wear the Ivy League academic robes he keeps in his office at the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney. He is a research fellow at both VELiM and the Department of History, and the first historian to hold an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship, and he has a PhD in the History of Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania. The splendid cap, hood and gown – which, he points out, bear the colours of both Pennsylvania and North Melbourne Football Club – are his by right.

I am taken slightly off guard, however, when he puts them on. But that’s what Anderson does: he demonstrates, he demystifies. And he has a deep reservoir of experience to draw on.

Anderson, 53, was born in the small surfside town of Apollo Bay, Victoria. Both his parents were schoolteachers, whom he describes as being “on the margins of academic life” as well. His father, Hugh Anderson, became a historian, and produced “40 or 50 books”, many of them high school texts. His mother, Jean, lectured in drama at Melbourne Teachers’ College, later a part of Melbourne University, and wrote about teaching drama and creativity.

Hugh was a communist until the 1950s, a member of the Realist Writers’ Group with Ian Turner and Stephen Murray-Smith. Jean was part of the drama department which, in the 1970s, gave rise to the “alternative theatre” group, the Pram Factory, which first performed David Williamson’s play, Don’s Party.

“My parents dragged me along to the Pram Factory quite a bit when I was a child,” says Anderson. “I knew a lot of those people as friends of my parents. I used to see Max Gillies, and play board games with him on rainy days in summer.”

The family felt intellectually isolated in Apollo Bay and moved back to Melbourne when Warwick was eight years old. He attended University High School, “a left-wing, intellectual school, with some extraordinarily good teachers”. As he was good at science, he “drifted into” studying medicine at Melbourne University. He completed an internship at the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, where his clinical work was dominated by autoimmune disease, the conceptual history of which he is currently writing with former Hall Institute director, Ian Mackay.

"I took up history, and the poetry went out of my life … I’ve been a bit of an intellectual vagabond."

He later worked in the neo-natal intensive care unit of John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, UK.

“I think that turned me into a historian,” he jokes. “It was in the NHS, the hours were terrible. It was an incredibly stressful job.”

He returned to Australia to practise as a GP in the western suburbs of Melbourne. In his spare time, he applied to study Arts subjects at Melbourne University, but the lecturers steered him towards the History and Philosophy of Science. He also wrote and published poetry, until he started his PhD, at the age of almost 30.

“I took up history, and the poetry went out of my life,” he says.

But he has recently returned to his early writing, and his collection of “resuscitated” poetry, Hard Cases, Brief Lives, was shortlisted for the best first book of poetry award by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature.

When he left Australia for the US, he was working on a history of tropical medicine and ideas of race in the north of Australia, which became, much later, his book The Cultivation of Whiteness. He taught at Harvard, then Melbourne University, where he ran the Centre for Health and Society. Returning to the US, he took up a position at the University of California, San Francisco’s medical school, which eventually came with a joint appointment to the Berkeley history department. He moved to the University of Wisconsin, where he wrote his second book, Colonial Pathologies, about US colonial medicine in the Philippines.

Anderson also continued to practise medicine up until 1999. (“I’m still registered,” he says.) Even when he taught in the US, he’d come back to Australia in the Northern summer and work at a community health centre in Melbourne.

Different understandings

He took up a research professorship at Sydney in 2007. “I’ve been a bit of an intellectual vagabond,” he says, “moving around from place to place, but I now feel I’d like to stay at least 10 years somewhere. Sydney does possess an extraordinary group of historians of science and medicine and philosophy, and people doing sociology of science as well. It’s a group that’s as good as any in the world.”

His Laureate Fellowship – “Southern racial conceptions: comparative histories and contemporary legacies” – builds on ideas he has developed about the way medicine and public health became sites of racial thinking as much as anthropology in last 150 years. Anderson has been studying the shift within anthropology from rigidly typological thinking, which regarded races as being fixed and separate, to a biological anthropology more interested in race-mixing and the formation of new races. He is organising a comparative study of the way human difference (or “race”) has been understood in the global south.

In the 19th century, various New Zealand physical anthropologists – including Maori anthropologists – had talked about the racial amalgamation of Maori and Pakeha as leading to a superior race. These ideas, says Anderson, are mirrored in Latin racial thought which, in countries such as Mexico, has set great store by the creation of a better Mestizo race.

Standard histories of racial thinking have been dominated by European and US ideas of eugenics, discredited in the extermination camps of Nazi-occupied Europe. But, says Anderson, “Maybe one can even argue that most of the world had different understandings of race than the North Atlantic ones.”

The Fellowship will allow for the examination of networks of southern racial thinkers – doctors, public health officers, anthropologists and biologists – and the way their ideas influenced public policy.

Racist in a different way

“I’m not saying the southern societies are not racist,” he stresses, “and the science that is practised there is often quite racist as well, but I’m saying, in a sense, it’s racist in a different way."

Anderson’s work on the history of autoimmunity grew out of his most recent book, The Collectors of Lost Souls, which looks at the “discovery” and study of an autoimmune disease called Kuru in the highlands of New Guinea. Lost Souls won the NSW Premier’s History Award, along with two major international awards, the William H Welch medal and the Ludwik Fleck, which had never before been given to the same work.

In an autoimmune disease, the body attacks its own tissues. Up to 20 percent of the population will develop an autoimmune disease at some point in their lives, but its history is barely studied. Anderson’s book with Mackay is, he says “a sort of conceptual history of autoimmunity, looking at how it became, in a sense, conceivable, from the late 19th century up until the late 1980s.

“You first need to have the idea of an immune system and antibodies, and there was actually great resistance to the notion that the immune system could do anything except defend the body. That it was a cause of disease in its own right was regarded as unimaginable, anathema. It was only in the 1940s and ’50s that people came to accept autoimmunity at all.

“Autoimmune disease is a biographical disease in a way (that) getting an infection is not. You have to understand the biography of the sufferer.”

At this point I notice the decoration in his offices: an embroidery illustrating vaccination, from Baha state in India; a photograph of Sigmund Freud’s desk; and what looks like a Medieval tri-corn but turns out to be his academic cap.

He models it for me, with the rest of his regalia, in order to give a full answer to my casual question. He says he likes wearing his robe because “it’s rather ridiculous”. But it will always have one drawback for the boy from Apollo Bay. It’s the colours of North Melbourne, and he barracks for Essendon.

Image: Warwick Anderson with Fore people in Papua New Guinea, 2003