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Reading doctor's writing: race, politics and power in indigenous health research, 1870-1970

Thomas, David Piers (2001). Reading doctor's writing: race, politics and power in indigenous health research, 1870-1970. PhD Thesis, Northern Territory University.

Document type: Thesis
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Author Thomas, David Piers
Title Reading doctor's writing: race, politics and power in indigenous health research, 1870-1970
Institution Northern Territory University
Publication Date 2001
Thesis Type PhD
Subjects 1117 - Public Health and Health Services
Abstract In this thesis, I have described the way in which doctors represented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australian medical journals. I have concentrated on publications in the Medical Journal of Australia before 1970. Such medical representations influenced not only the way doctors reading these journals thought about Indigenous people but continue to influence how all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, think about Indigenous people and their health.

I have explored the researchers' changing ways of writing about race and the ambiguities of how they described Indigenous Australians as sometimes different from and sometimes the same as settler Australians. In contrast to many researchers' views of science as objective, it has been possible to see how this research was influenced by broader social and political forces: from the colonial drive to settle northern Australia, through the changing politics of race, to the dramatic changes in Australian society and Indigenous politics at the end of the 1960s.

I also used the medical journals to begin to describe how research was performed in this colonial setting. Many of the researchers, such as John Burton Cleland from Adelaide University, wrote that Aboriginal people passively and powerlessly cooperated with their research. It has been possible to read the accounts written by Cleland and other researchers and begin to see the constrained agency of these same Aboriginal people with their considered participation given in exchange for material goods, medical care and entertainment. The researchers attempted to influence this exchange by using their more powerful political position in the colonial encounter and occasionally deceit.

The conclusion describes the implications of this history for present-day Indigenous health research. I encourage the writers of this research to more explicitly acknowledge the historical and political context of their medical research.

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