Pandemic Reading: 10 Books on Health and Immigration History

May 29, 2020
By: Beatrix Hoffman

The covid-19 pandemic has fueled racism and xenophobia, echoing past pandemics. Beatrix Hoffman has compiled a reading list on U.S. immigration, public health, and the history of medicine to help make sense of our current moment. Below are 10 must-read books, listed by publication date.

Kraut, Alan. Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the Immigrant Menace. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Classic synthesis that also opened up a new field of study for both immigration scholars and historians of medicine and public health.

Markel, Howard. Quarantine! East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York City Epidemics of 1892. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

This examination of 1890s typhus and cholera outbreaks shows that quarantines directed solely at lower-class immigrants were ineffective and could even make epidemics worse.

Shah, Nayan. Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Shah’s nuanced analysis demonstrates how Chinese San Franciscans were both subject to, and came to be crucial participants in, the building of an urban public health regime.

Fairchild, Amy L. Science at the Borders: Immigrant Medical Inspection and the Shaping of the Modern Industrial Labor Force. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Argues that the medical inspections at Ellis Island and elsewhere were used primarily to certify immigrants as fit to participate in industrial labor, far more often than for exclusion. 

Markel, Howard. When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America and the Fears They Have Unleashed. New York: Pantheon, 2004.

The prolific Markel presents a century of xenophobic responses to tuberculosis, bubonic plague, trachoma, typhus, AIDS, and cholera.

Molina, Natalia. Fit to be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Molina argues that government and business leaders’ stigmatization of Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican communities in Los Angeles as menaces to public health was central to the process of racialization.

Abel, Emily K. Tuberculosis and the Politics of Exclusion: A History of Public Health and Migration to Los Angeles. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

How urban campaigns against endemic tuberculosis led to the exclusion and deportations of Mexicans, Filipinos, and domestic migrants. This is a short book with lots of human stories, accessible to undergraduates.

McKiernan-González, John. Fevered Measures: Public Health and Race at the Texas-Mexico Border, 1848–1942. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

A transnational history of the “medical border” where practices of inspection, quarantine, forced disinfection and treatment, and detention both stigmatized bodies and constructed nation-states.

Green, Laurie B., John McKiernan-González, and Martin Summers, eds., Precarious Prescriptions: Contested Histories of Race and Health in North America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Includes essays by McKiernan-González on African-American migrants and smallpox in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands; Lena McQuade-Salfuss on midwives and statehood in New Mexico; Natalia Molina on the racialized medicalization of Mexican laborers; and Verónica Martínez-Matsuda on Mexican farm workers and New Deal health reforms.

Hirota, Hidetaka. Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Although not a medical history, Hirota’s revisionist study of early deportation practices shows that the terms “sick” and “poor” were often inseparable in “public charge” expulsions of Irish immigrants.

Beatrix Hoffman

Beatrix Hoffman, professor at Northern Illinois University, has published The Wages of Sickness: The Politics of Health Insurance in Progressive America (University of North Carolina Press, 2001) and Health Care for Some: Rights and Rationing in the United States since 1930 (University of Chicago Press, 2012). She is currently working on a history of undocumented immigrants and the right to health care.

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