'Their Whiteness Is Not Like Ours': A Social and Cultural History of Albinism and Albino Identities, 1650-1914

  • Thomas White

Student thesis: Phd


This research charts the long cultural trajectory of albinism from early modern travel encounters and Enlightenment exhibitions to medical classification and biological experimentation. It argues the whiteness of albinism functioned as a visible provocation to thinkers involved in work crucial to major conceptual developments in western science and medicine. It stresses this rare complexion was a prism through which medical and scientific researchers studied human variation, disease and inheritance. It examines how albinism paralleled a broader historical production of modern racial and pathological identities. T¬his research traces medico-scientific discourses in order to understand their affect on people diagnosed with albinism. It commences with analysis of 'unusually white' people in travel narratives and Enlightenment ephemera between 1650-1799. It bridges plural representations of 'unusual whiteness' as sub-human or racially distinct with the crystallisation from the 1770s of a pathological definition for 'leucoethiopia'. It demonstrates circulation of medical case studies and the formal classification of albinism as congenital disease by medical men in 1822 reflected a far-reaching revolution in medical thought and practice across Europe. It links this medical paradigm shift with the rise of heredity theory from the 1850s. It argues widespread experimentation with albino animals supported fierce early twentieth-century debates among biologists about Mendel's laws of heredity. It concludes with analysis of the dialectic between medical knowledge about albinism and 'albino' identities. It argues people with albinism both internalised and camouflaged medical associations with defect through the adoption of class privilege and individual social tactics. Overall, this research makes a significant claim to rethink the histories of race, disability and medicine. It spotlights albinism as a critical nexus to understand the making of the normal and the pathological body, and it pinpoints the unstable relationship between medical diagnosis and individual agency.
Date of Award1 Aug 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAna Carden-Coyne (Supervisor) & Bertrand Taithe (Supervisor)


  • Albinism, Albino, History, Cultural, Social, Disability, Identity, Colour, Pigmentation
  • Medicine, Medical Identities, Medical Power, Biopower

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