How can we assess the reciprocal impacts of politics and medicine in the contemporary period? Using the example of rickets in twentieth century Britain, I will explore the ways in which a preventable, curable non-infectious disease came to have enormous political significance, first as a symbol of socioeconomic inequality, then as evidence of racial and ethnic health disparities. Between the 1920s and 1980s, clinicians, researchers, health workers, members of Parliament and later Britain's growing South Asian ethnic communities repeatedly confronted the British state with evidence of persistent nutritional deficiency among the British poor and British Asians. Drawing on bitter memories of the ‘Hungry Thirties’, postwar rickets—so often described as a ‘Victorian’ disease—became a high-profile sign of what was variously constructed as a failure of the Welfare State; or of the political parties charged with its protection; or of ethnically Asian migrants and their descendants to adapt to British life and norms. Here I will argue that rickets prompted such consternation not because of its severity, the cost of its treatment, or even its prevalence; but because of the ease with which it was politicised. I will explore the ways in which this condition was envisioned, defined and addressed as Britain moved from the postwar consensus to Thatcherism, and as Britain's diverse South Asian communities developed from migrant enclaves to settled multigenerational ethnic communities.
- Health policy
- Public health
- Nutrition and metabolism
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