“A Pervasive Dread”: Disease Emergence, Genetics, and Indigeneity in Northern Australia
After World War II, rumors began to circulate of a mysterious illness among the Anindilyakwa people of Groote Eylandt (in the Gulf of Carpentaria), a neurological disorder causing an unsteady, high-stepping gait—hence called ‘bird disease’ locally. Described formally only in the 1980s, the syndrome usually developed in middle age and led inevitably to general neurological deterioration and death. Although it seemed to run in families, initially scientists attributed the disease to manganese toxicity, from the mines on Groote Eylandt. But in 1996, research showed that it was a form of Machado-Joseph disease (MJD), a genetic disorder present also in the Azores, southern Brazil, and parts of East Asia. Thus genetic explanation substituted for environmental and social reasoning. The Anindilyakwa went from being Indigenous isolates, vulnerable to development, to genetic cosmopolitans. MJD on Groote Eylandt raises issues of disease definition and framing, Indigenous genomics, the origin of the mutation, the contrast between Indigenous and scientific explanations and narratives, and practices of care in remote Indigenous communities. It compels us to connect Indigenous histories with histories of genetics and medicalization.
Warwick Anderson, MD, PhD, is the Janet Dora Hine Professor of Politics, Governance, and Ethics in the Department of History and the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. In 2018-19, he is the Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard. The author of four award-winning books, he seeks in this new project to meld anthropological and historical approaches to understanding health maintenance, disability care, and disease emergence in remote Aboriginal communities.