Shadows of Whiteness: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Racial Sciences in the Middle East

Lunchtime Lectures
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
1:00 p.m.–2:00 p.m. EST (UTC -5)

Between the turn of the 20th century and the Second World War, the Middle East underwent profound political and social transformations shaped by resistance to European colonialism and the consolidation of nationalist ideologies. In this context, physical anthropologists, archaeologists, and medical doctors were deeply invested in determining the racial identities of Middle Eastern peoples. Human remains excavated from archaeological sites across the Middle East prompted a full-fledged obsession with racial origins: who were the closest living descendants of the Phoenicians, Israelites, Hittites, and ancient Persians? Thousands of people across Turkey, Iran, and the Levant had their bodies and bones measured to ascertain their ancestral claims. In Turkey and Iran in particular, this anthropometric research was mobilized both to assert a white, European racial status in the diplomatic realm and to conceal the ethnic diversity of their populations in order to impose a single, homogeneous national identity. The interwar Middle East was also a formative location for a new methodology of racial classification based on the ABO blood groups: sero-anthropology. In the interwar period, physicians in Egypt, Turkey, and the mandates of Syria and Palestine took part in sero-anthropological research to locate Middle Eastern nationalities and religious communities on a racial scale of blood-type gene frequencies.

About the Speaker


Elise K. Burton headshot in front of ivy

Elise K. Burton

Elise K. Burton is a historian of the life sciences in the modern Middle East, focusing on developments in genetics, evolutionary biology, physical anthropology, and medicine during the 20th and 21st centuries. She is currently an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute for the History & Philosophy of Science & Technology. She earned her BA from the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in biology and Middle Eastern studies. She completed her PhD in Middle Eastern history at Harvard University. Prior to joining Toronto, she held as research fellowship at the University of Cambridge. Her first book, Genetic Crossroads: The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity, is coming out in January 2021 with Stanford University Press.

About the Series

Now combined with our Saturday Speaker Series, Lunchtime Lectures take a rigorous and entertaining approach to exploring topics for scholars and anyone interested in stories about the history of science. The talks help expand perceptions of the nature of science and how it’s done. This season, our speakers are exploring issues of gender, race, and colonialism in the history of the physical and biological sciences from the early modern period to the 21st century.