cover image Dying in the City of the Blues: Sickle Cell Anemia and the Politics of Race and Health

Dying in the City of the Blues: Sickle Cell Anemia and the Politics of Race and Health

Keith Wailoo, Author University of North Carolina Press $53 (352p) ISBN 978-0-8078-2584-6

From slavery onward, diseases real and imaginary have played significant and complex roles in race relations. Wailoo, professor of social medicine and history at UNC-Chapel Hill, focuses on one disease, sickle cell anemia, in one city, Memphis, to fashion a compelling demonstration of how powerful and significant this underappreciated interaction between illness and race has been, in particular tracing a cycle of ignorance of illness and suffering among blacks, to recognition of the reality of sickle cell disease and back to a disregard for black pain and suffering. American discovery of sickle cell anemia in 1910 was followed by decades of obscurity (some doctors simply denied its existence). But a 1934 report that Memphis led the nation with an 11% infant mortality rate was a difficult turning point, eventually leading to medicine displacing cotton as the city's prime economic focus. From the 1940s to the 1970s, there was a growing acknowledgement of sickle cell disease and an increase in medical services provided to the African-American community (though, according to Wailoo, treating sick black children was an easier racial accommodation on the part of the white establishment than acknowledging issues of black power), culminating in the 1972 Sickle Cell Control Act that brought Memphis $500,000 for research. This high point of celebrity and sympathetic visibility contrasted sharply with the 1990s, when medical authorities began again to question the reality of pain inflicted on sufferers by the disease - due, according to the author, to the establishment's increasing focus on treatment costs and the resurgence of stereotypes about blacks and drug use, in particular (unwarranted) fears that prescribing painkillers would lead to drug addition. This unassuming masterpiece of revelation focuses on a new, more precise lens on the intersection of race, illness and politics. (Mar.)