Human Energy

Date: 1924
Owner: Harper & Bros.
Source Type: Images


This blatantly racist medical/demographic map from 1924 displays north European notions about tropical enervation and white superiority. Such early twentieth century diagrams evolved out of "disease maps," a cartographic technique used in the nineteenth century to display the prevalence of severe medical conditions in areas near the equator. Such maps were made possible by the presence of massive European empires and, by equating conquered areas with uninhabitability and racial degeneration, were able to help justify conquest and expansion. Disease maps located beriberi, malaria, yellow fever, and other "tropical" diseases exclusively in the jungles of South America, Africa, and Asia, despite the fact that many of these conditions had been only recently contained in Europe.

Disease maps, in a way, resembled Humboldt's notion that geography had to be considered as part of a grander study of nature, a philosophy inspiring his map of plant distribution on Mount Chimborazo (seen in the Humboldt topic). Yet, at least by nineteenth century standards, Humboldt was far from racist, and saw potential for development and civilization in the jungles of South America. This map, however, categorizes the entire equatorial region as having "low" and "very low" levels of energy; regions whose very ecology and geographic location made their denizens incapable of modernity. Although, the environment of the tropics is only partly to blame for the prevalence of 'tropical disease,' particularly one means of preventing those diseases had been discovered around the turn of the century, Eurocentric ideas about tropical health and environmental determinism were nevertheless a very real obstacle to treating and preventing diseases. Sanitation campaigns, for example, would have little support if doctors thought heat and humidity, as opposed to dirty drinking water, were what caused so many to die of these conditions. Since poor sanitation and thus disease thrived in the poor areas inhabited by "tropical races," (such as mestizos and others of mixed African, indigenous and European ancestry) the tenets of tropical medicine and racial degeneration were mutually reinforcing.

Reference: Stepan, Nancy Leys. Picturing Tropical Nature. Ithaca: Cornell University Pres, 2001.

CITATION: The Distribution of Human Health and Energy on the Basis of Climate. In Climate and Civilization by Ellsworth Huntington. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1915.