Infectious Fear

Politics, Disease, and the Health Effects of Segregation

By Samuel Kelton Roberts Jr.

328 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 36 illus., 5 tables, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5934-6
    Published: May 2009
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-9407-1
    Published: April 2009
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-8066-6
    Published: April 2009

Studies in Social Medicine

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For most of the first half of the twentieth century, tuberculosis ranked among the top three causes of mortality among urban African Americans. Often afflicting an entire family or large segments of a neighborhood, the plague of TB was as mysterious as it was fatal. Samuel Kelton Roberts Jr. examines how individuals and institutions--black and white, public and private--responded to the challenges of tuberculosis in a segregated society.

Reactionary white politicians and health officials promoted "racial hygiene" and sought to control TB through Jim Crow quarantines, Roberts explains. African Americans, in turn, protested the segregated, overcrowded housing that was the true root of the tuberculosis problem. Moderate white and black political leadership reconfigured definitions of health and citizenship, extending some rights while constraining others. Meanwhile, those who suffered with the disease--as its victims or as family and neighbors--made the daily adjustments required by the devastating effects of the "white plague."

Exploring the politics of race, reform, and public health, Infectious Fear uses the tuberculosis crisis to illuminate the limits of racialized medicine and the roots of modern health disparities. Ultimately, it reveals a disturbing picture of the United States' health history while offering a vision of a more democratic future.

About the Author

Samuel Kelton Roberts Jr. is associate professor of history at Columbia University and assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health.
For more information about Samuel Kelton Roberts Jr., visit the Author Page.


"A major contribution to the historical study of disease in the United States. . . . Meticulously researched, critically acute, and displays an impressive grasp of the clinical aspect of TB, both present and historical."--Doody's Review Service

"A solid contribution to research on health disparities, a field that needs to do much more to acknowledge that such disparities have deep historical roots that require excavation."--American Historical Review

"Will appeal . . . to highly specialized researchers interested in public health politics."--Choice

"A meticulously researched, densely written survey of the bleak landscape inhabited by black Americans with tuberculosis (TB) during the Jim Crow era. . . . An insightful and sorrowful view of an important subject."--The Journal of American History

"Pushes us to reimagine the history of segregation and health, and through this evocative work Roberts has provided a template for scholars and health advocates to think more deeply about these connections. . . . Will appeal to a broad readership interested in how the history of segregation can illuminate discussions of public health and health care. Historians of medicine, urban historians, historically minded urban planners, medical sociologists, and epidemiologists will find Infectious Fear invaluable for their work."--Journal of Southern History

"A fascinating history. . . . Robert's well-researched monograph provides a solid contribution to research on health disparities. . . . Tells an important story."--Journal of American Studies