Gut Reactions: Fear and Disgust in Public Health History

Featured in the History of Emotions blog this week:

As far back as Charles Darwin’s 1872 work, The Expression of Man and Animals, it has been assumed that the emotion of disgust is an evolved universal trait, found in all cultures at all times. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen presented evidence for a universal facial expression of disgust, all-but cementing it as one of the six basic emotions that are still used as the backbone of a great deal of emotion research.

This week, a group of scholars from a range of disciplines have come together to explore different aspects of disgust, attempt to define it and question whether it had an origin, whether it is universal, and whether it can even be called an emotion. The first in this series is a guest post by Guenter B. Risse.

Risse is professor emeritus of the history of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and currently affiliate professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Bioethics and Medical Humanities. He has been working on the influence of emotions in public health, notably in his Plague, Fear and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) and the recent Driven by Fear: Epidemics and Isolation in San Francisco’s House of Pestilence (University of Illinois Press, 2016) His blog attempts to sketch the dynamics responsible for the construction of health risks and drastic separation of persons deemed dangerous to society.

Testifying in April 1876 before a commission appointed by the California Senate to study the nefarious impact of Chinese immigration, Hugh Toland, a prominent surgeon and founder of his own medical school, asserted that 90 percent of venereal cases in San Francisco could be blamed on Chinese prostitutes. Engaging in “beastly sex,” they ultimately threatened America’s survival by “infusing poison into the Anglo-Saxon blood.” Revealing himself as a notorious racist, Toland expanded on the alarming incidence of “some of the worst cases of syphilis I have ever seen.” For a few dimes, white preteen local boys were initiated into the pleasures of the flesh with “frightful” consequences, poisoned by the seeds of a nearly incurable disease filling “our hospitals with invalids.” Indeed, some women in advanced stages of the disease came to the city hospital, where frightened and disgusted patients as well as physicians sought their immediate expulsion and transfer to a stigmatized isolation facility: San Francisco’s Pesthouse, where they briefly languished before dying.

Continue reading at the History of Emotions blog, August 22, 2016.