Breathing Race into the Machine Logic of Inquiry

In Breathing Race into the Machine, Lundy Braun describes the origins of the spirometer, a device used for measuring lung capacity and strength, and chronicles its history as well as its racialization in the United States, United Kingdom, and South Africa. The first chapter discusses mid-nineteenth century Britain. In this time, the atmosphere of Britain was rife with anxieties about the working class, included the innovation of statistics, and “growing cultural enthusiasm for precision instruments” (Braun, xxv). This chapter follows Hutchinson’s work, and describes how the spirometer was meant to monitor the health of police officers and armed forces; Braun claims that there was little, if any, racial intent in this work. The second chapter describes what happened when the spirometer traveled to the United States; in this chapter, Braun argues that the use of the “spirometer to quantify racial differences enhanced the instrument’s credibility” (Braun, xxvi). The spirometer helped give a scientific basis for solidifying societal perceptions of differences between white and black people in the United States.

Chapter three looks at the “uptake and use of lung capacity measurement as anthropometric variables in the white middle-class domains of physical culture and physical education.” (Braun, xxvii). Braun defines ‘physical culture’ as a social movement that focused on the physical fitness of a white race and was worried about Irish and eastern European immigrants (55). In this time, Benjamin Apthorp Gould compared white and black people’s bodies to “craft the potentialities of an Anglo-Saxon race” (Braun, xxvii). This chapter details how the manufacturing of the spirometer in conjunction with societal forces prepared the UK for widespread use of the spirometer as a medical device (Braun, xxvii). Chapter four discusses the societal forces surrounding the spirometer in the late nineteenth century into the first decade of the twentieth century. Physical educators linked vital capacity to labor when carrying out anthropometric studies on the male English elite. In this chapter, Braun briefly discusses Francis Galton, the father of both eugenics and statistics, who “promoted mass anthropometry” to rank each race (xxvii).

The fifth chapter examines “the transnational projects of standardization and knowledge exchanges among physician-scientists in the US, Britain, and South Africa in the early twentieth century” (Braun, xxvii). In this chapter, Braun describes how the apparent racial difference in lung capacity became scientific ‘fact.’ The next chapter discusses how the race correction for quantifying lung capacity came to be. The final chapter shows how the spirometer came to embody whiteness in South Africa in a different way from the other countries discussed.

Braun’s explanandum is the racialization of the spirometer in English-speaking countries. Her explanans was that racialization was not inevitable and that the racialization and validity of the spirometer formed a downward spiral which continues to amplify both. The process of racialization was roughly as follows: the spirometer was created to describe differences in occupations and social classes; when the spirometer went to the US, it was used to explain differences between white and black people; phrenology and statistics led to the ‘scientific fact’ of racial differences in lung capacity; and after WWII, a Pneumoconiosis Research Unit scientist and an American physician created the race correction factor, an idea that is still applied today.

The author believes that this is a case of “the socio-technoscientific processes by which scientific knowledge is produced” (Braun, xxi). While one could read this all as one case, each chapter can be seen as its own case with the other chapters discussing six parallel cases describing the racialization of the spirometer from multiple perspectives. The author is interested in this case because of an article she read in a newspaper about an insurance company making it more difficult for African Americans in Baltimore to get worker’s compensation for lung damage due to working with asbestos. Braun hints at generalizability, saying that the book examines “the complex and contradictory historical processes by which difference, such as race, class, and gender, actually get embedded into the very architecture of scientific instruments” (xxi) and stating that this phenomenon is rooted in a “paradigm of difference” (xvii), which suggests that other phenomenon fit into the paradigm and processes that she is describing.

It is unclear what the author’s expectations were when she began. She does present a set of relevant cases that describe the process of racialization of the spirometer, but does not go too far in extrapolating beyond the arguments evidence she presents. She explicitly states that she will not discuss whether racial differences are real in the first place, and her purposeful exclusion of this topic hints at her intent to have a descriptive social history of the spirometer without injecting her personal opinion. Most of the text is descriptive, and at times simply chronological, and Braun’s voice seems lost in the text. In the acknowledgements, Braun lists a large amount of people who have read her work and have given feedback. It is possible that after multiple revisions and multiple people guiding her, Braun lost her own voice.

There seems to be little triangulation in this book. Braun mentions but does not present the opposing voices to racialization of the spirometer and does not pit two sets of data against each other. It is apparent that Braun made extensive use of librarians and archives, often getting advice for new topics to search from colleagues, friends, librarians, and archivists. Braun does interview a large number of people across the US, UK, and South Africa, but barely mentions the results of those interviews. Braun ends with a statement that summarizes her book well – “Racialized science produces racialized results” (206) – and a call to go forth with unified standards for spirometry.



Braun, Lundy. 2014. Breathing Race into the Machine. University of Minnesota Press.