The Foreignness of Germs: The Persistent Association of Immigrants and Disease in American Society

During the 20th century the United States witnessed social, political, and economic transformations as well as advancements in medical diagnosis and care. Despite changes in demography, the meaning of citizenship, and the ability to treat and cure acute and chronic diseases, foreigners were consistently associated with germs and contagion. This article explores why, at critical junctures in American history, immigrants have been stigmatized as the etiology of a variety of physical and societal ills. The article analyzes three periods from 1880 to the present and suggests that now, as germs progressively and, often, indiscriminately cross national, social, and economic boundaries through multiple vectors, the mistakes of the past must not be repeated. Protecting the public health in the current era of globalization requires an ecumenical, pragmatic, and historically informed approach to understanding the links between immigration and disease.

Author(s): Howard Markel; Alexandra Minna Stern

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Volume 80, Issue 4 (pages 757–788)
DOI: 10.1111/1468-0009.00030
Published in 2002