Date: 1905
Owner: Constable
Source Type: Images


The people pictured here suffered from the "tropical" disease known as elephantiasis, officially renamed filiariasis in the 1870s. It is one of a number of maladies caused by parasites that thrive in unsanitary conditions; thus those most frequently infected by it were the poor.  Due to social conditions that relegated members of particular ethnic groups to poverty, diseases like elephantiasis came to be associated with those populations who were assumed to be biologically susceptible to such diseases, as member of non-Europeans races.  In Brazil, blacks, Indians and mestizos were most commonly the victims of elephantiasis.  A group of doctors working out of Brazil's Escola Tropicalista Bahiana developed a more sophisticated and distinctly Brazilian approach to so called tropical disorders.

The Tropicalistas sought to discover causes for mysterious diseases like filiariasis by rejecting the prevalent notion of environmental determinism, which blamed tropical nature and people for "degeneracy." This group of doctors, several of whom were Europeans who chose to work in Brazil, found that unsanitary conditions were at the root of diseases like filiariasis and hookworm because they allowed for the promulgation of parasites. Parasites, a tangible and preventable vector, caused the painful swelling of filiarisis, and hookworms, not racial enervation, led to anemia. The Tropicalistas used their findings to attack squalid social conditions, especially the institution of slavery, and promote public sanitation measures. Despite predating by several decades the neo-colonial efforts of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau, as well as the nationalist sanitary reforms of Brazilian medical hero Oswaldo Cruz, the Tropicalistas faced too many obstacles from Eurocentric conventions of tropical medicine. Consequently, their approach did not have a lasting influence.

Reference: Peard, Julyan G. Race, Place, and Medicine: the Idea of the Tropics in Nineteenth-Century Brazil. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

CITATION: Images of Elephantiasis. In Lectures on tropical diseases: being the Lane lectures for 1905 delivered at Cooper Medical College, San Francisco, U.S.A. August 1905. by Patrick Manson. London: Constable, 1905.