Race, Sex, Birth and Blood in South African History : “Rhesus sensitization in the Bantu” in South Africa, 1940 to 1970

Presented by Catherine Burns

Monday, 2 June, 2014 - 15:00

South Africa presents an unusual example of a southern medical science community where scientific work has been unusually charged with race and sex debates and conceits. In many areas of scientific endeavour these obsessions did not obviate, and may have charged, research at the highest levels. For example human tissue research, organ transplantation, and related areas of science often equaled and sometimes outstripped research and practice by peers in the north. The science of human tissue transfusion, transplantation and re-engineering, is a vast subject and a history of its development and politics in Southern Africa cannot be contained in the space of a single paper. 1Craig Kesson's dissertation is an institutional history of the national blood service in the Union of South Africa, concentrated on the era between the World Wars.2 I have begun to work on histories of organ transplants, blood transfusions and human tissue research in South Africa, together with a small cross-disciplinary research group3, and we have found very little published historical work on this field for South Africa, while at the same time discerning that the scientific, laboratory, archival and other evidence for this as a field of inquiry is vast. 4 This paucity in scholarly historical literature is curious given the excellent histories of racial science for our region more broadly5, as well as the histories of blood, race and power writing in the Europe, the UK, and other parts of Africa and the USA.6 Most of the latter work develops an argument based on detailed science and technology histories of, for example, blood transfusion in the USA, while simultaneously writing about the way in which communities of donors and recipients viewed and communicated about blood products and blood technology, with all the entailed complexities of belief, hope, anxiety, fear and relief that blood donation and transfusions brought in lived experience.

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