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‘Health, Illness and Ethnicity’: Migration, discrimination and social dislocation

December 12, 2011

Event report – by Anne Mac Lellan

This two-day workshop (10 and 11 June 2011) was hosted by the Centre for the History of Medicine at University College Dublin. The event was co-organised by Catherine Cox (University College Dublin), Sarah York (University College Dublin/Warwick University), and Hilary Marland (Warwick University) and was generously supported by the Wellcome Trust. It was the second event associated with the ongoing Wellcome Trust project Madness, Migration and the Irish in Lancashire, c.1850–1921. The workshop was designed to bring together researchers from a variety of different disciplines to focus on the relationship between illness, migration, discrimination and social dislocation. The focus was primarily on the 19th and 20th centuries, although a few papers related to contemporary challenges in providing effective health services for migrant communities were included.

After opening remarks by Dr Catherine Cox, the keynote speaker Alison Bashford (University of Sydney) provided a masterly synthesis of insanity and immigration restrictions. She challenged the view of historians who have posited that the immigration restriction acts were eugenic with respect to powers of ethnic and race- based exclusion. Instead, Bashford suggested that the standard insanity clause in almost all immigration acts became a key manifestation of international eugenic practice.

In the first session, on contemporary health inequalities, community interpreter Krisztina Zimányi (Dublin City University) explored difficulties in accessing the views of immigrant mental healthcare service users in the context of community interpreting in Ireland. She posited that it is not only language but also dialect, ethnic background, gender and religion of both client and interpreter that need to be considered to provide appropriate interpretation. Sinead Donohue, a public health professional (Health Protection Surveillance Centre, Dublin), addressed the need for clinical cultural competence training at postgraduate level for the medical profession in Ireland. The third speaker, sociologist Ronnie Moore (University College Dublin), examined travellers and change in the 21st century. He presented recent findings on the health of Irish travellers from the series of ‘Our Geels’ Traveller Health Technical Reports (2010).

The second session, which also focused on health inequalities, juxtaposed the historical and contemporary. John Odin Jensen (Sea Education Association, Massachusetts) reviewed cultural and organisational responses to immigrant and transient illness in the American Midwest, focusing on Buffalo, New York, 1825–1890. Physiotherapist Viktoria Zander (Mälardalen University) discussed the magnitude of reciprocity in chronic pain management using the experiences of dispersed ethnic populations of Muslim women.

The first day concluded with a historical session addressing disease. Katherine Foxhall (King’s College London) examined naval surgeons’ early attempts to vaccinate British and Irish emigrants and convicts against smallpox during voyages to Australia, 1820–1850. In analyzing themes of coercion, compulsion and dislocation, Foxhall argued that voyages are not simply vectors and that what happened in the maritime spaces between metropole and colony provides important evidence about medicine’s role in colonial history. In the final paper, Anne Mac Lellan (University College Dublin) analysed the changing understanding of tubercular Irish nurses in England in the middle of the 20th century. Her paper explored epidemiological evidence that demonstrated the immunological vulnerability of these nurses to tuberculosis, contesting the older belief that the Irish nurses imported the disease into England.

Roberta Bivins (University of Warwick) began the second day of the workshop. Continuing the theme of disease, her paper explored medical responses to postcolonial migrants and their ethnically marked descendents in the era of decolonisation and the Cold War. John Welshman (Lancaster University) traced the emphasis given, or not given, to ethnicity in research on poverty and social exclusion in the UK in the period since the 1970s. The final paper in this session was presented by political geographer Alan Ingram (University College London), who mapped the management of HIV and AIDS in the UK in terms of their intersection with contemporary modes of government, relating this to concerns about the impact of migration.

The workshop concluded with a historical session focusing on mental illness. Majorie Harper (University of Aberdeen) outlined the beginnings of a project on dysfunction, detention and the deportation of Scottish migrants to post-Confederation Canada. Letizia Gramaglia (University of Warwick) then drew on the experience of Dr Robert Grieve, medical superintendent of the lunatic asylum in British Guiana, to explore the relationship between migration and mental illness in the British West Indies during the second half of the 19th century. The final paper, by Catherine Cox, Hilary Marland and Sarah York, analysed the experiences of Irish migrants in the Lancashire asylum system in the mid-to-late 19th century. An examination of the impact of the Irish on management within the asylum system was coupled with individual stories of migration, employment, destitution and repatriation.

The workshop brought together researchers from a variety of disciplines, including history, medicine, sociology and geography, stimulating vibrant discussion of historical and current-day issues on the subject of health, ethnicity and migration.

Anne Mac Lellan is a PhD student at University College Dublin, Ireland.

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