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Theories about the origins of venereal disease proposed by British medical men during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries encoded the racial and sexual hierarchies of the British empire. These theories conveyed assumptions about the animalistic inferiority of African and Amerindian bodies, and thus provide a strikingly early example of biological racism, a way of thinking about difference that is sometimes associated more with the nineteenth century. In particular, theories that located the origins of venereal disease in the sexual disorder of colonized peoples, whether in bestiality or animalistic sexual promiscuity, were articulated as justifications for slavery and imperial conquest.

Katherine Paugh is Associate Professor of Atlantic World Women’s History at the University of Oxford. Her work focuses on the histories or race, gender and medicine in the black Atlantic. She has been the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, including awards from the Harvard Center for the History of the Atlantic World, the American Philosophical Society, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, and the Huntington Library. Her article on yaws and venereal disease won the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Article Prize.

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