Calibrating Livelihood and the Gut: Australian Metabolism Science in Papua New Guinea (1960-1971)

Project Summary:

Pacific Islanders have some of the highest rates of metabolic disease in the world. Often scientists attribute this to genetics and a transition to a processed food diet. My project presents another element in the regional and global history of how researchers understood metabolism at a time when global hunger, not obesity, was a concern. This metabolism research was also a precursor to microbiome research today.
In the 1960s, a team of Australian nutritionists travelled to Papua New Guinea (then an Australian colony) and compared the metabolisms of people who lived a subsistence lifestyle with those who worked for wages in towns, as well as White Australians in Australia. Subsistence livelihoods were of particular interest during the Cold War, as regional institutions, like the South Pacific Commission hoped that Pacific Islanders could transition to wage earners in capitalist economies.

As part of their research, these researchers collected and compared urine, expired air, breast milk and feces. The samples they could not analyze in the field, were sent back to a government lab at the Australian Institute of Anatomy (a leading national institution of the Australian Department of Health) in Canberra for analysis. These researchers cautiously published that in people practicing subsistence livelihoods, they had located gut microflora that would metabolise protein from nitrogen in the air. Their claims suggested that WHO universal standards of protein consumption might need to be changed to allow for differences between populations.

The objective of this research is to use historical methods and social theory to analyze metabolism research in Australian colonial nutrition science in the south western Pacific Islands. Within this 1960s research, I will document the scientific practices of the collection, storage and analysis of Pacific Islanders’ biological materials. I want to understand these technologies measuring metabolism as a means of how scientists calibrated the sexed, raced and age-related embodiment of food and waged or subsistence labour.

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