Abstract: The Science of Difference: Developing Tools for Discrimination in the American Life Insurance Industry, 1830-1930

Dan Bouk


My dissertation examines the history of life insurance companies in the United States as sites that put science to use developing ideas about human difference and practices of discrimination. It argues that life insurance companies and the mathematicians, statisticians, and doctors they employ have had a significant impact on the development of systems of human classification and discrimination in modern America. It pays closest attention to the tools employed by life insurance companies to enable and justify their discriminatory practices, tracing their evolution over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the process, it traces out the development of "risk" as a human characteristic, first measured by industry mortality tables in the eighteenth century, and later considered through lenses of sectional tension, racial difference, and medical impairment. The dissertation reveals the ways that life insurance companies served as cultural institutions, as well as financial ones. Life insurance companies, it argues, developed new scientific tools, like the medical "impairment," which would become the ubiquitous "risk factor," and new scientific resources, like the vast corporate data sets that often did a better job than government data at describing the American population.