Caring for Foreign Bodies

Alan Kraut gave the annual James H. Cassedy Memorial Lecture today at the National Library of Medicine on “Caring for Foreign Bodies: Healthcare’s Role in Immigrant Assimilation, 1890–1945.”  Dr. Kraut is University Professor of History at American University. Circulating Now interviewed him about his work.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

Formal portrait of Alan Kraut.Alan Kraut: I was born and raised in the South Bronx in New York City. We lived in a tenement on Prospect Avenue. I attended the Bronx High School of Science, where I first developed an interest in the history of science. My undergraduate work was at Hunter College (Bronx campus), class of 1968, where I majored in history, although I also loaded my program with courses in literature and philosophy. I earned my M.A. and Ph.D. at Cornell University, where I studied American political history. My dissertation was on the political wing of the abolitionist movement, a voting study of the Liberty Party, an antislavery third party active in the 1840s. However, while I was completing my dissertation I realized that I was most interested in ethnic voting patterns. Soon after beginning my job at American University in autumn of 1974 I turned to immigration history and published several books in that field before combining my interest in immigration with the history of medicine and public health. At American I teach courses in both the history of immigration and the history of medicine and public health. I also have an appointment in the F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine of the Uniformed University of the Health Sciences. I am a morning writer so I try to schedule my classes in the afternoon and early evening.

CN: Would you tell us about the work you presented in your lecture, “Caring for Foreign Bodies: Healthcare’s Role in Immigrant Assimilation, 1890–1945?”

AK: The work I am presenting in my lecture at NLM is a very preliminary part of a new book project on the process whereby immigrants are assimilated into American society and culture. Earlier scholars have largely neglected the role of the body in the assimilation process. This lecture treats those who care for the body, especially physicians and nurses as mediators in the assimilation process. In this lecture, I am dealing with a peak period of immigration, 1890–1945, the largest mass migration to the U.S. until the present wave which began in the 1970s.

Uniformed men inspect the eyes of people, with luggage, waiting in lines.
Public Health Service physicians on Ellis Island in New York Harbor check the eyes of immigrants for signs of trachoma, Ellis Island Immigration Station, ca 1910.
National Library of Medicine #a029450

CN: Healthcare and immigration are two topics of national debate at the moment, how does your work inform the discussion?

Hand colored engraving of a large spired building with people and cows in the foreground. A listing of the comissiners of Immegration.
Emigrants’ Hospital, NY, ca 1868
NLM #C05691

AK: Healthcare and immigration are both matters of great concern to contemporary Americans. Especially important is the matter of how these millions of newcomers will be integrated into American life. I hope that the book I am currently writing will explain to contemporary scholars and policymakers how newcomers in an earlier era negotiated their place in American society and the role of the body as a zone contention in that negotiation. As a Non-resident Fellow of the Migration Policy Institute, I am very much aware of the current interest in assimilation and looking to the past for understanding. 

CN: In researching this subject, were you drawn to any particular document or individual’s story?

Dr. Antonio Stella. Vice Chairman Italian Tuberculosis Committee.
Dr. Antonio Stella
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine

AK: In the research I am presenting at NLM, I was very much drawn to the stories of individual physicians who sought to refute nativist charges that the newcomers, especially the Southern Italians and Eastern European Jews, were physically unsuitable for admission to the United States. Two such physicians were Dr. Antonio Stella and Dr. Maurice Fishberg. Both were immigrants, Stella from Italy and Fishberg from Russia, and both were amateur anthropologists who gathered data and published their refutation of anti-immigrant sentiments even as they advised the newcomers about what they must do to assimilate successfully.

CN: How did you originally become interested in the History of Medicine? What inspires you in your work?

AK: In the early years of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, the disease was known as the disease of the four H’s—Homosexuals, Heroin Users, Hemophiliacs, and Haitians. The mistaken designation of Haitian immigrants as a high risk group for HIV-AIDS by the Centers for Disease Control in 1983 (rescinded in 1985) and their subsequent social stigmatization inspired me to want to combine my interest in immigration with history of medicine and public health. Had earlier immigrant groups ever been so stigmatized? What was the influence of immigration on the development of urban public health in the United States?

Portrait, Head and shoulders, right pose, full face.
Dr. Joseph Goldberger, (1874–1929)
NLM #b012871

I am inspired in my work by the memory of my own family history and especially by the memory of my late father, Harry Kraut. When I was born my paternal side had been in this country for fewer than forty years, having emigrated from Poland via England in 1907. My father, the youngest of eight surviving children was a factory worker without a high school diploma. History and science fascinated him and he was determined that they would fascinate me, as well. Every weekend, no matter how tired he might be from the week’s work, we traveled around New York City by subway visiting different museums. The Hayden Planetarium, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of the City of New York—these were our haunts. We discussed history and science sitting very high in the grandstand over third base at Yankee Stadium, rooting for Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. Together we watched a TV show called “Cavalcade for America” featuring half hour tales of great Americans. On a warm April evening in 1954 we watched an episode on the life of Dr. Joseph Goldberger and how he conquered pellagra. Years later I recalled the show when I began writing a Goldberger biography. When I was quite young my father brought home a copy of Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif. I could not stop reading about those heroes of science. Harry Kraut died in 1981, but I still write for him.

Alan Kraut’s presentation was part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities.


  1. Haitians were associated with HIV-AIDS because with independence of the Congo in 1960 there was a sudden departure of the ruling Belgians. This left a void in executive governmental managerial positions. This gap was filled by intellectual Haitian elites because of good pay and the native language of Haiti, French. After several years of contact with the native population these Haitians became infected with H I V. Subsequent Congolese rulers expelled the Haitians and they return to their homeland, bringing with them the dreaded HIV.and being wrongfully stigmatized as a risk factor for that disease.

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