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‘The immigrant disease’: Trachoma, migration, and early twentieth-century ophthalmologic knowledge

Russian Jews being examined by a doctor before emigration from Liverpool to the United States. Wood engraving after C.J. Staniland, 1891.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark
Russian Jews being examined by a doctor before emigration from Liverpool to the United States. Wood engraving after C.J. Staniland, 1891. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

On January 1, 1906, the first groups of immigrants entering Britain were scrutinised under the newly introduced Aliens Act. The legislation required that migrants meet certain standards of health to enter the country, separating potential migrants into categories of medically ‘desirable’ or ‘undesirable.’ Though the illnesses and disabilities that warranted expulsion were broadly defined in the legislation, in practice, much of the medical inspections centred on a bacterial eye disease called trachoma. In this talk, Vesna Curlic argues that at the turn of the century, trachoma was transformed from an obscure ophthalmological concept to a crucial part of the mainstream political discourse around immigration. This, in turn, had serious consequences for potential migrants, with whom the disease became deeply associated. This talk considers the uncertainty of trachoma’s disease identity in global ophthalmological circles, especially concerning its curability, its visibility, and its aetiology.  

Trachoma was fraught with contradictions – at once visible and invisible, curable and incurable, contagious and racially predisposed. These three components of trachoma’s disease identity were under constant debate and revision in the medical literature. This paper traces the nature of these debates but also interrogates the human cost when these debates were transposed into the port medical space and applied by non-expert immigration authorities.  

As immigration restrictions were implemented, trachoma became a diagnosis wielded by non-experts and without proper diagnostic tools. The same disputed medical concepts that peppered the pages of journals, like curability and aetiology, were applied by immigration officers to justify refusing entry to certain migrants, including refugees fleeing religious or political persecution. Ultimately, this paper considers the way that niche medical debates were culturally diffused and the ways these medical ideas could radically impact the experiences of marginalised, ill individuals. 

Speaker 

Vesna Curlic is a third-year PhD researcher in History at the University of Edinburgh. Her thesis project considers the relationship between disease, disability, and the British immigration system in the early twentieth century. More broadly, her research interests include the history of medicine and science, modern immigration law, and public health policy. The paper she is presenting today is based on the first two chapters of the PhD thesis, which examine the port as an unconventional medical space.  

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