Theses Doctoral

“I Can’t Breathe”: The Rise of Asthma in Black Urban America

Kola, Ijeoma Beatrice

This dissertation examines how debates about racial susceptibility to asthma changed from 1880 to 1990 alongside a growing disparity in Black and white asthma morbidity. At the turn of the century, doctors believed asthma was exclusive to whites, due to the stresses of urban life on their delicate constitution. But by 1960, the first year the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics collected asthma data, the rate of asthma mortality in Blacks was nearly twice that in whites. After neglecting asthma in Black communities for sixty years, doctors scrambled to articulate its manifestation in urban communities of color. In those decades, the urban American landscape dramatically evolved, as the Great Migration brought six million African-Americans to Northern cities, but segregation and other racist policies created black metropolises laden with dilapidated public housing, high rates of unemployment, and environmental toxins from garbage dumps, waste plants, train tracks, and bus depots. Growing racial tensions and expanded funding opportunities during the Civil Rights Movement spurred an overwhelming production of research on asthma and race, with explanations ranging from meteorological episodes, environmental pollution, and indoor allergens to biological, genetic, and even psychological factors. Although research primarily focused on psychosomatic, environmental, and genetic causes, Black activists and community leaders used asthma data to mobilize for social equality in housing, neighborhoods, health, and education. At the cross-section of the history of medicine, social history, and environmental justice history, this dissertation examines the changing debates on racial susceptibility to asthma, the effects of the Great Migration and segregation on Black health, and both tensions and alliances between doctors, patients, and activists battling asthma in Black urban communities.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Chowkwanyun, Merlin
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 1, 2019