It is difficult to imagine Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health without the powerful descriptors of epidemiology. The statistical imagery of numerical tables, pie charts, and bar graphs have become a key element in the public presentation of Indigenous public health issues. Such quantitative measurements of health draw on the authority of neutral, objective science and are thus rarely questioned in terms of their social meaning. This paper traces the history of this imagery through the 20th century, providing a social account of epidemiological description. Historical notions such as social Darwinism, assimilation, and dangerous other are all seen to be woven into the epidemiological text. The enormous rise in the epidemiological description of Indigenous health problems in recent years needs to be analyzed as a social phenomenon and, in particular, as an aspect of emerging forms of governmentality.

Finally, it is argued that such analyses are needed in order to promote an anthropology of epidemiology and to avoid limiting medical anthropology to applications within epidemiology.