Spirometer, Whale, Slave: Breathing Emergencies, c. 1850

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Breath dramatically starts with a slap at birth and ceases with death and yet we typically ignore it until it is under duress. Unlike marine mammals such as whales and dolphins who can never fully automate breathing—they sleep one brain hemisphere at a time so as to keep conscious watch, like yogis, over their respiration—we humans are mostly somnambulists with regard to breath. Unlike our briny cousins, we won’t drown if we neglect our breath. Our relatively accommodating habitat at the fold of lithosphere and atmosphere enables a Lethe of oblivion, though many elements of our world are hostile to breath: water, fire, earth, extremes of height, heat, or cold. Nothing could be more fundamental for aerobic terrestrial creatures than breathing. So its routine cloaking in impercipience must somehow be functional and require a great deal of nervous expenditure. (It always takes a lot of work to make an infrastructure invisible.)

Breathing is a good test case for the notion, common to many variants of critical theory, that nature for humans is always second nature: what would it mean to find culture, history, and politics in something that is so relentlessly universal and given? The intensity of the urge for drink, food, sex, or sleep pales compared to that of taking a breath withheld or expelling a breath too long held. Here, it seems, desire and need converge. Breathing morphs into awareness, art and artifice when threat, absence or curiosity rouse it from its slumber—when we swim, have a coughing fit, sing, or challenge someone to a breath-holding contest. Under the earth in a mine, high in the air on a mountain or airplane, ill with a respiratory disease, or in other extreme situations, we need techniques and technologies to breathe. Like everything supposedly natural, we can’t leave breathing in peace. We mold breath in techniques of speech, song, and prayer and in technologies of diving, medicine, and air travel. A full accounting of such would form a full encyclopedia of human ingenuity.1I start such an inventory in “The Media of Breathing,” Atmospheres of Breathing: Respiratory Questions of Philosophy, edited by Lenart Škof and Petri Berndtson (SUNY Press, 2018), pp. 179-95.

With typical flamboyance, Peter Sloterdijk declared that the atmosphere first ceased to be taken for granted, i.e., became technical, a matter of art, on 22 April 1915, with the German deployment of poison gas in World War I. On a world-historical scale, he takes this weaponization of the environment as an “air-quake” that launched modern air-conditioning in its most literal sense of climatization (as French and German has it) and not just interior cooling (Sloterdijk 89-110 passim). We need a history of comparative breathing emergencies! Every era, like every life, has its encounters with the precarity of breathing, even if not as conveniently dated or climate-change prognostic as 22 April 1915. The urban concentration of human population starting a few thousand years ago, for instance, made people co-breathers (con-spirators) in new ways and thus more prone to the contagious respiratory illnesses that have long ravaged our species.

I want to look at one such moment—one marked by a deadly global respiratory illness, new instruments for producing data, worries about radical alterations to the atmosphere, comparative interest in nonhuman forms of life, and the politicization of breathing. 1850, like 2020, was a moment when breath awoke from its autonomic quiet. The nineteenth century was the great age of tuberculosis, the tragic and romantic lung disease. It was a time of fog, smoke, and mud, of climate-changing volcanic eruptions and a year without a summer, and of a mysterious, brooding “storm-cloud” that John Ruskin complained of so bitterly. Medical instruments, the whaling industry, and struggles for the abolition of slavery all brought the lungs into the foreground.


The nineteenth century was also the great age of instrumentation. Light and sound were only the two most famous dynamic processes to yield to new graphic methods of inscription such as photography and phonography. The spirometer was one of many devices designed to render visual data of physiological functions, such as the myograph, the flame manometer, sphygmomanometer, and the kymograph. Many of them are still in use. The invention of the spirometer, a device for measuring lung flow and capacity, is usually attributed to the London doctor John Hutchinson (1811-1861), a surgeon with engineering interests, though, as always, any claim to historical priority blurs into ancestral and definitional uncertainty. He first presented his device in May 1844 and in a long 1846 article showcased its volumetric skills for assessing a body’s “vital capacity,” a term he used instead of “lung capacity.” He shows how this capacity correlates with height, age, gender, and even posture (standing vs. seated) using tables of statistical evidence. The partly hydraulic, and not easy-to-use device helped in the early diagnosis of tuberculosis, showing that patients in the early stages of “phthisis pulmonaris” had considerably less vital capacity as measured in cubic inches. His sample was a rather large one of 2,130 men, no women, a characteristically biased medical population. (He did conduct autopsies, however, on both male and female cadavers.) (His ambitions for the spirometer’s employment in actuarial estimates of longevity never bore fruit.) His article is stuffed with tables, diagrams, and images showing breath expanding and contracting the body as if in triple exposure: the spirometer made breath into data (Hutchinson 137-252).

The spirometer is still in mainstream medical use, though in radically revised form from Hutchinson’s day, when it was as tall as a human adult. I spent much of the summers of 1975 and 1976, after high school and my first year in college, working as a grunt coder of spirogram printouts for pulmonary research projects at the Harvard School of Public Health. Test subjects would blow with all their might into a mouthpiece connected to a suspended rotating drum covered with graph paper, a pen producing a steep take-off curve that plateaued for a few seconds until all the breath was expelled. (Hutchinson seemed less interested in dynamic data than total size.) Reading these analog, paper tracings was slow, painstaking work with a ruler and protractor and entailed some very long afternoons. Now spirometric data bypasses human coders and the slopes and volumes I struggled to measure are born digital. The spirometer of the 1970s was probably closer to Hutchinson’s than to what you will find in a spirometry clinic today.

One of the hoariest questions in the history of medicine is the degree to which a scientific instrument can be disentangled from the ideas about race, gender, or normality that accompanied its origin and lifespan. Is racial bias baked in or a correctable misuse? (Good minds disagree.) Certainly there is no swampier region of medical history than anthropometry. Historian of science Lundy Braun has shown that spirometric standards bear a long history of racial bias. Based on a history of lung measurements, especially a survey of Black and white Union soldiers toward the end of the Civil War directed by an astronomer (and thus someone practiced in the art of precise measurements of “the personal equation”), the idea of a Black pulmonary deficit became a fixture of both medical practice and popular culture. The survey claimed to show racial distinctiveness in physiology systematically and statistically. It was a major study cited by eminent scientists such as Charles Darwin. In the US and South Africa, at least, it was common up until recently to routinely discount Black lung capacity by 10-15% compared to white. A difference in the means of two very varied populations became a medical standard, despite the lack of rigorous evidence.2This paragraph draws closely from Braun, pp. 135-169. See also her book, Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

A predecessor for this bias can be found in a notorious passage in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-82) about the “nature” of Black people. In the mode of comparative natural history, he claims that they sweat more: “This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in respiration, to part with more of it.”3Jefferson, p. 265. The experimentalist in question seems to be Adair Crawford, Experiments and Observations on Animal Heat (J. Murray, 1779). The many ways this passage is the Platonic idea of illegitimate naturalization are obvious, such as turning slave labor into physiological difference. (It doesn’t require advanced knowledge to understand why agricultural chattel might be sweating more than their white owners.) Our offense at his claims is deserved, and automatic. (Trauma recurs unbidden.) But let the offense burn through to the politically usable insight that Jefferson is a founding example of how the oppression of Black people in the US has meant the real or figurative diminution of their breath.


Jefferson’s imagination of pulmonary otherness turns on the question of how much moisture the lungs move. This was also a question for Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), who indulges in a parodic-scientific disquisition on whale breathing in chapter 85, “The Fountain.” The explicit topic of the chapter is the whale spout, specifically whether it consists of water or vapor, a topic that provokes puns about mist-ification. The spout’s purpose and composition remain ultimately mysterious, as things do in Moby-Dick‘s “cetology” (i.e., whale pseudoscience) chapters. (Melville, unlike Jefferson, knows that his forays into comparative anatomy are acts of metaphysical skylarking.) Whereas fish breathe by gills and can thus pass their entire lives immersed in water, a whale has lungs, which make “the necessity for his periodic visits to the upper world.” Ishmael correctly notes that whales breathe not through their mouth, which has no connection with their lungs and is typically immersed, but through their spiracle or blow-hole, an evolutionarily evolved double set of nostrils atop the head. The radically different anatomy of humans and whales matches a radically different physiology: humans must breathe constantly or die while “the Sperm Whale breathes only about one seventh or a Sunday of his time.” It can hold its breath for an hour during a deep dive. Every whale has a unique respiratory rhythm. An unmolested whale’s breathing is regular, almost metronomic, such as 70 breaths in 11 minutes (Ishmael’s numbers). There is a regular correlation—an “undeviating rhyme”—of breaths and spouts for each whale. Because of their dependence on the atmosphere, whales are vulnerable to hunters, who also live in the air (Melville 277-280). Their life-giving interface is also fatal. The whale, as a breather who can only live in water, is eternally not in its element (Neubert 186-202, 196).

In the course of chapter 85, the spout grows more mysterious. As blinding, corrosive, and poisonous, it is epistemically inaccessible to sight, touch, and taste. Ishmael cannot resolve whether the spout consists of a misty exhalation of breath alone or is mixed with swallowed water: “Can you not tell water from air? My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all. And as for this whale spout, you might almost stand in it and yet be undecided as to what it is precisely.” Being there would not help. As is typical of the book’s cetological chapters, Ishmael cedes to the Bilderverbot, the ban on representation: “The wisest thing the investigator can do, then, it seems to me, is to let this deadly spout alone” (279, 280). This is the gesture Ishmael repeatedly makes, one in contrast to Hutchinson. The substance of breath, its mixture of air and water, remain beyond our grasp.

Two other aspects of the whale’s breath deserve brief note—its thermodynamic and theological dimensions. Ishmael frequently compares cetacean anatomy to innovations in nineteenth-century transportation infrastructure such as canals and steam power. The whale’s circulatory system is like urban waterworks and its force like a locomotive. (A possible source for the novel says that a white whale named Mocha Dick “flung the water from his nose in a lofty, perpendicular, expanded volume, at regular and somewhat distant intervals; its expulsion producing a continuous roar, like that of vapor struggling from the safety-valve of a powerful steam engine.”4J. N. Reynolds, “Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific: A Leaf from a Manuscript Journal” (1839), in Moby-Dick, pp. 510-525, 512.) Thermodynamics, the science of heat and its dissipation, is always in a slow boil in the background of Moby-Dick. Steam rises, we also learn in chapter 85, from the heads of all profound beings. Creatures besides whales have subtle spouts; when we think deeply, we all have a literal head of steam. (All that is solid melts into air, in the famous thermodynamic quip of Marx and Engels two years before Moby-Dick.) And just as rainbows will appear in whale spouts, so heavenly intuition might sometimes illuminate the mists of doubt. In a single chapter on the moistness of whale breath, Melville manages to both update us on entropy and assure us about skepticism.

Moby-Dick, to be sure, is a book full of breathing, wet or dry, from a fart joke in chapter 1 about the circulation of air on the ship to the near strangulation of the small Black man named Pip who jumps overboard in a whale hunt and gets tangled in the rope in chapter 93. For a moment there, Tashtego, the Native harpooner, hot on the chase after a whale he has stuck, hesitates whether to slice the rope and free Pip—and also the whale. His knife hovers over the rope in suspense: “Meanwhile Pip’s blue, choked face plainly looked, Do, for God’s sake!” (306). In a flash, the rope is cut, the whale is lost, and Pip is allowed to breathe again. For God’s sake, indeed: the Aristotelian catharsis and humane gratitude we feel upon this sudden burst of mercy owes in part to our contrasting knowledge of so many Black lives whose deprivation of breath knew no reprieve. The Great American Novel knows more than we might have thought about the American Dilemma.


Frederick Douglass, needless to say, was no stranger to that dilemma. In his only work of fiction, the 1852 novella, The Heroic Slave, based on a slave rebellion at sea, breathing is a constant theme. When the titular hero, the factually but resonantly named Madison Washington, finally escapes to Canada, he sends news of his safe arrival to white friends who gave him shelter on his escape north: “I am free, and breathe an atmosphere too pure for slaves, slave-hunters, or slave-holders.” (Needless to say, this is not an overly positive comment on the air quality of the United States.) Similarly, later in the story, we hear Tom Grant, an eyewitness to the rebellion, tell a barroom full of fellow-white would-be experts on slave control: “I deny that . . . your theory of managing slaves will stand the test of salt water. . . . It is one thing to manage a company of slaves on a Virginia plantation, and quite another thing to quell an insurrection on the lonely billows of the Atlantic, where every breeze speaks of courage and liberty.” This almost natural-law theory, that the elements embody appeals to liberty, reaches its climax after the successful mutiny on the slave ship and a fierce ocean squall when Washington declares: “you cannot write the bloody laws of slavery on those restless billows. The ocean, if not the land, is free” (Douglass 26, 43-44). Washington is almost channeling Hugo Grotius, the seventeenth-century Dutch legal theorist of the freedom of the seas or perhaps also the medieval saying: “Stadtluft macht frei,” city air makes you free. Slavery may grow on American soil, but in other lands, or in aerial or aqueous habitats, it does not flourish. Douglass gives us a political ecology of servitude and liberty. The idea that nature, at least atmosphere and ocean, is on the side of liberty is a direct riposte to the Jeffersonian claim of natural slaves.5Here I build on the illuminating Carrie Hyde, Civic Longing: The Speculative Origins of U. S. Citizenship (Harvard University Press, 2018), chapter 3. (Slavery, like tuberculosis, was a major robber of lung capacity in the nineteenth century.) Whereas in Melville breathing risks the whale’s captivity and death, in Douglass breathing is a harbinger of the slave’s liberation. As long as you can breathe, as long as you can keep your head in the air, he seems to say, emancipation remains possible.

That something so ordinary as breathing can become the medium of oppression only shows the depressing absurdity and depth of the crime. Perhaps all politics starts with breathing. Why we have not been able to let all our fellows breathe, I don’t know: I have always found your plainest things the knottiest of all.

Works Cited

  • Braun, Lundy. “Spirometry, Measurement, and Race in the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 60, no. 2, April 2005.
  • Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition. Yale University Press, 2015.
  • Hutchinson, John. “On the Capacity of the Lungs, and The Respiratory Functions, With a View of Establishing a Precise and Easy Method of Detecting Disease by the Spirometer.” Medico-Chirurgical Trans, vol. 29, 1846.
  • Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Modern Library, 1984.
  • Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 1851. Edited by Hershel Parker, 3rd ed., Norton, 2018.
  • Neubert, Christoph. “Die Medien des Wals. Kapitel 85: The Fountain.” Neue Rundschau, vol. 126, 2015.
  • Sloterdijk, Peter. Schäume. Suhrkamp, 2004.
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