9 - Selection for infection  pp. 134-146

Selection for infection

By Kenneth F. Kiple and Virginia Himmelsteib King

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In human experience mortality from infectious diseases appears to be more closely related to malnutrition than is the incidence of such diseases.

Ian Taylor and John Knowelden (1964)

A medical gentleman at Savannah told me, that pulmonary complaints are those which prove most fatal to the negroes.

Basil Hall (1829)

Antebellum physicians – like old gossips-delighted in passing along novel observations, and some of their juiciest tidbits dealt with the peculiar habits of slaves. One custom they tittered about was the “universal practice among them of covering their head and faces, during sleep, with a blanket, or any kind of covering they can get hold of,” even when it meant leaving the feet exposed. Another was the slaves' tendency to bundle up for sleep despite the temperature, while still another was their tendency to sleep head first close to roaring fires regardless of the season. Astounded visitors joined physicians in reporting that even “in the hottest days in summer they are never without fires in their huts,” and according to at least one observer, the bondsmen's fascination with fire had a substantial impact on plantation architecture. “The kitchens,” he remarked “are always at the distance of several yards from the principal dwelling. This is done as well to guard against the house negroes through carelessness setting the house on fire, for they generally sit over it half the night … over a large fire in the summer, when I could scarcely endure the excessive heat of the night in open air.”