by Priscilla Wald

About Priscilla Wald

Priscilla Wald is the R. Florence Brinkley Professor of English at Duke University and author of Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form (Duke University Press, 1995) and Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Duke University Press, 2008). She is currently at work on a monograph entitled Human Being after Genocide.


“Naturalization” evolved as a keyword along with other modern conceptions of political belonging that found expression as the nation. The term appeared first in Middle French to describe the conferral of the rights and privileges of a native-born subject on a foreigner. While the noun dates from the late sixteenth century, its verb form, “naturalize,” preceded it by a century. “Naturalize” spread quickly throughout Western Europe as it proliferated in the sixteenth century, expanding to include the conversion of something foreign—words and phrases, beliefs and practices—into something familiar, or native. With their roots in the Renaissance, “naturalize” and “naturalization” continue to register the concerns of the moment of their coinage: an emerging interest in social classification and taxonomy, an increasing emphasis on human agency and the potential to adapt sufficiently to a new environment to enable settlement, and, of course, a fascination with the natural world and human experience.

Natural Disaster

There is a redundancy in the expression “natural disaster,” a double disavowal. “Disaster”: “bad star,” circuitously, through the Italians and the French, from the Greeks and Romans, for whom fate was written in the stars. Nature spoke in the voice of the gods; expertise in reading omens allowed anticipation, maybe even placation, but human influence was secondary. Human agency was never fully absent from these events. They might be punishments for the commission or omission of a deed—for a violation, intentional or otherwise. But the event itself—the overly strong winds or the lack thereof, the flood or fire, the earthquake or drought, a destruction or a withholding of necessities or bounties—bespoke a higher agent and the expression of displeasure.


Musing, in the first months of a new century, on what he called “Infectious History,” Nobel Prize–winning microbiologist Joshua Lederberg (2000, 290) predicted, “The future of humanity and microbes will likely unfold as episodes of a suspense thriller that could be titled Our Wits versus Their Genes.” Lederberg was instrumental in defining the phenomenon that came to be known as “emerging infections.” The term referred to the proliferation of microbes that caused catastrophic communicable disease in humans. For Lederberg and his colleagues, the phenomenon was not an unknowable threat but a predictable effect of a kind of progress: an expanding global population was moving into areas that had been un- or sparsely inhabited by human beings—thus developing those spaces—while improvements in transportation and an increasingly global economy were moving goods and people rapidly around the world. As these microbes encountered a new species—humans, hence a new food source—they also found a new form of transportation, enabling them to hitchhike around the globe, perhaps mutating in the process. Humans are “major engineers of biological traffic,” warned Stephen Morse, Lederberg’s colleague, referring not only to literal transportation but also to the practices through which humans produce the ideal conditions for biological growth and dispersal (Morse 1996, 24).

About this Site

Keywords for Health Humanities provides a rich, interdisciplinary vocabulary for the burgeoning field of health humanities and, more broadly, for the study of medicine and health. Sixty-five entries by leading international scholars examine current practices, ideas, histories, and debates around health and illness, revealing the social, cultural, and political factors that structure health conditions and shape health outcomes.