In July 1965, several months after the assassination of Malcolm X and the freedom marches from Selma to Montgomery, the New York Times ran a story about “an emotional epidemic” of asthma sweeping across New York City. Although the writer focused on psychosomatic explanations to link asthma symptoms to the hostility of the Civil Rights Movement, it prompted me to explore the significance of asthma’s emergence as a racial problem during the 1960s.
Before the 1960s, little was written about asthma in African Americans. For much of the early twentieth century, doctors debated whether black people could have asthma, as they understood the disease to afflict middle and upper-class whites, who were believed to have more civilized lifestyles and delicate constitutions than poor blacks.
However, in the 1960s, several “outbreaks” of asthma made national news headlines. In the fall of 1960, nearly 150 patients from adjoining neighborhoods were treated for asthma at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. One patient, a 73-year-old man, died. After several years of seasonal asthma admission spikes in the same hospital, researchers at Tulane University found that asthma related visits to the emergency room correlated with fire department calls from spontaneous fires at the base of garbage heaps, some five to twenty years old, around the city. Smoke containing silica particles would drift downwind to where the majority of people who visited Charity Hospital, triggering asthma attacks.