An interview with Dr. Jean Kim

What is the focus of your research?

My research looks at how medical institutions and public health policies were implicated in US institutional, cultural, and political expansion in the Pacific, and how these institutions and policies contributed to the way people understood categories of identity such as citizenship, gender, family, and race, among others.

My research is based mostly in Hawai’i, which was a US colony between 1898 and 1959. Specifically, I’m looking at healthcare on sugar plantations, which were pivotal in the expropriation of land, demographic transformations, epidemiological upheavals, and the promotion of foreign settlement and sovereignty in Hawai’i.

What are you working on at the United States Studies Centre over 2011-12?

I am revising a book manuscript by adding two new chapters, and revising two journal articles. For the book, I’m expanding upon what we know about US imperial medicine by tracing how doctors who were members of the American Medical Association travelled professionally across the US colonies of Hawai’i, the Philippines, Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The existence of these loose networks of US physicians outlines in a clearer way, the institutional trajectories of US colonial medicine.

Another chapter I am working on looks more at how American doctors established Western medicine in Hawai’i in the nineteenth century and how their challenges to the authority of Hawaiian indigenous healing were implicated in political challenges to Hawaiian sovereignty.

In what ways does your work challenge the concept of American exceptionalism, that is the idea of the US being qualitatively different from other nations?

By examining the kinds of political patterns of governance, categories of identity, and professional trajectories that medicine shaped in the nineteenth century, the manuscript outlines areas of US history that are often marginalised within conventional accounts of the US as a modern nation-state. By focusing on US colonial interactions and the ways they were implicated in imperial inequalities that persist today, which have remained largely hidden within US historiography due to the continued prevalence of the idea that the US remained exempt from imperial expansion, this research challenges US exceptionalism.

This provides a valuable counterpoint to prevailing interpretations of US history by placing the US more broadly within a wider context of settler colonialisms in the Pacific, demonstrating the America’s often overlooked similarities with contemporary imperial endeavors in this region.

How did the American colonies contribute to the advancement of US science and public health? Can you draw any parallels with similar networks today?

US colonies contributed to the advancement of science and public health within the United States largely by their function as laboratories for testing out medical policies. These policies were derived from the nineteenth century therapeutic revolution in which medicine became grounded in the new science of bacteriology. The practice of medicine and urban and rural sanitation policies in US colonies at the turn of the century often solidified social hierarchies and entrenched racial inequalities, whilst also influencing the design of public health campaigns on the US continent.

The colonial possessions at the turn of the last century also advanced US involvement in global epidemiological and public health surveillance abroad - in Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific.

Today, global health problems constitute a domestic public health concern. Public health infrastructures and health inequalities find antecedents in a previous century of colonial expansion, and they are marked by the inequalities in public health engendered in earlier expansions of empire and biomedicine.