Plague Doctors: Responding to the AIDS Epidemic in France and America

Plague Doctors: Responding to the AIDS Epidemic in France and America

Plague Doctors: Responding to the AIDS Epidemic in France and America

Plague Doctors: Responding to the AIDS Epidemic in France and America


Plague Doctors highlights culturally based differences between French and American medicine, not only in health care delivery, but in the way each system constructs the interaction between disease and the human body. This work challenges the assumption that biomedicine is uniform across the western world. The author, a medical doctor and anthropologist, provides an ethnographic look into the daily experiences of physicians and researchers, examining how members of the French and American medical communities construct their models of AIDS through discourse and practice. The book is based on a comparative study of two AIDS clinics, one in Chicago and the other in Paris. Participant observation conducted at the clinics and interviews with physicians and researchers outside the sites yielded important insights into the world of AIDS medicine.


Well before AIDS, one already knew that illness and medicine are invested on a symbolic map, objects of a construction of meaning as much as of an elaboration of knowledge. From this point of view AIDS seems to constitute, for the researcher in social science, the opportunity of an almost too perfect demonstration.

Herzlich and Pierret (1988, 48)

This book is about acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). No single work can begin to encompass its worldwide impact, for AIDS pervades social, economic, ethical, historical, and medical aspects of our lives. Instead, I have deliberately chosen the biomedical moment as my focus and in doing so, have created an ethnography of medicine as much as an ethnography of AIDS. The reader might recognize the experience of her mother's cancer, or her patient's heart disease in these pages. And yet . . . AIDS is different. How the medical community defines these differences and responds to them lies at the heart of this book.

Epidemics in general, and AIDS in particular, give social scientists an unparalleled opportunity to examine the interaction of institutional practices, social values, and cultural assumptions in a given place and time, particularly those of medicine. Western medicine, or biomedicine, has been defined as an objective science of the chemical and physiological functions and malfunctions of the human body (Ohnuki-Tierney 1984). Within the last ten years, however, we have begun to recognize that biomedicine, like non-Western medicines, is also a system of beliefs and practices intrinsically linked to its larger sociocultural context, and a legitimate object of anthropological research (Kleinman 1980; Wright and Treacher 1982; Lindenbaum and Lock 1993).

This book examines how members of the French and American medical communities, composed of clinical and research sectors, construct their models of . . .

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