SOAS University of London

Department of History, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Red Crescents: Race, Genetics, and Sickle Cell Disease in Turkey and Aden

Elise K. Burton, University of Cambridge

Date: 5 February 2018Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 5 February 2018Time: All Day

Venue: Paul Webley Wing (Senate House) Room: Wolfson Lecture Theatre

Type of Event: Seminar

After the Second World War, a number of prominent scientists increasingly advocated for the application of genetic knowledge to medical research. The emergence of medical genetics as a discipline in this period owes much to pioneering studies on the inherited blood disorders collectively known as sickle cell disease. However, from the moment of its discovery in African-Americans, sickle cell disease took on not only clinical but also anthropological significance. By the 1950s, sickle cells were imagined as genetic markers of racial origins and human evolution.

This lecture traces the history of research on sickle cell disease in Arabic-speaking communities living in southern Turkey and the British colony of Aden during the period 1953-1963. British and Turkish geneticists independently discovered sickle cell disease in two socially marginalized groups, the so-called Akhdam of Yemen and the Arabic-speaking Alawites (Nusayris) of Turkey. Over the next decade, as these researchers collaborated with each other and colleagues in Israel and Lebanon to understand the distribution of hereditary blood disorders across the Middle East, they clashed over how to define their research subjects, struggling to reconcile racial, historical and sociological boundaries between Turk and Arab, white and African. I analyze how colonial infrastructures, international public health practices, and Arab and Turkish nationalisms converged through competing explanatory narratives of African or Indian origins, adaptation to malaria, and socially enforced endogamy. Through these narratives, the scientific discourse configured sickle cell disease as disordered blood not only in medical terms, but also in terms of the contradictions of ancestry, identity, and nationhood in the postwar Middle East.

Elise K. Burton is a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge (Newnham College). She earned her BA in two subjects, Middle Eastern studies and biology, from the University of California, Berkeley. In 2017, she completed her PhD in History & Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University with a thesis on the history of human genetics research in the Middle East from the First World War to the present.

Organiser: Ceyda Karamursel

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