In This Review

Picturing Tropical Nature
Picturing Tropical Nature
By Nancy Leys Stepan
Cornell University Press, 2001, 283 pp

A fascinating examination of how the tropics have come to be represented since the eighteenth century, drawing mostly on a marvelous array of materials from Brazil. Stepan, a historian of science, dissects the exotic depictions of tropical nature that Europeans and North Americans traditionally favored. By examining select episodes and visual images, she traces how tropical places, peoples, and diseases were imagined and treated. She also explains how so many naturalists and artists became interested in the tropics in the nineteenth century, and how the cult of natural history and the demand for exotic travel books affected the visualization of tropical nature. She then examines how Westerners interpreted the racial composition of tropical people, especially the mixed-race population of Brazil. Finally, she provides a guide to the definition of tropical medicine, including the strange story of a Brazilian pathology called Chagas disease, which afflicts millions of Latin Americans. Almost every aspect of that ailment and its discovery in 1909 was later challenged and reinterpreted. Some of the images she brings to light are truly gruesome, but she uses them well to demonstrate how the tropics became "a place of peculiarity" -- and how indelible many of these perceptions remain.