From the era of slavery to the present day, the first full history of black America’s shocking mistreatment as unwilling and unwitting experimental subjects at the hands of the medical establishment.
Medical Apartheid is the first and only comprehensive history of medical experimentation on African Americans. Starting with the earliest encounters between black Americans and Western medical researchers and the racist pseudoscience that resulted, it details the ways both slaves and freedmen were used in hospitals for experiments conducted without their knowledge—a tradition that continues today within some black populations. It reveals how blacks have historically been prey to grave-robbing as well as unauthorized autopsies and dissections. Moving into the twentieth century, it shows how the pseudoscience of eugenics and social Darwinism was used to justify experimental exploitation and shoddy medical treatment of blacks, and the view that they were biologically inferior, oversexed, and unfit for adult responsibilities. Shocking new details about the government’s notorious Tuskegee experiment are revealed, as are similar, less-well-known medical atrocities conducted by the government, the armed forces, prisons, and private institutions.
The product of years of prodigious research into medical journals and experimental reports long undisturbed, Medical Apartheid reveals the hidden underbelly of scientific research and makes possible, for the first time, an understanding of the roots of the African American health deficit. At last, it provides the fullest possible context for comprehending the behavioral fallout that has caused black Americans to view researchers—and indeed the whole medical establishment—with such deep distrust. No one concerned with issues of public health and racial justice can afford not to read Medical Apartheid, a masterful book that will stir up both controversy and long-needed debate.
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HARRIET A. WASHINGTON has been a fellow in ethics at the Harvard Medical School, a fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a senior research scholar at the National Center for Bioethics at Tuskegee University. As a journalist and editor, she has worked for USA Today and several other publications, been a Knight Fellow at Stanford University and has written for such academic forums as the Harvard Public Health Review and The New England Journal of Medicine. She is the recipient of several prestigious awards for her work. Washington lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Medical Exploitation on the Plantation
Celia’s child, about four months old, died last Saturday the 12th. This is two negroes and three horses I have lost this year. –DAVID GAVIN, 1855
Frederick Gardiner, a peripatetic Mormon physician, left among his travel memoirs an impression of the nineteenth–century slave markets of Washington, D.C.:
There are a great number of Negroes, nearly all of whom are Slaves. And on different Streets are large halls occupied as Marts or stores, for the sale or purchase of Slaves. . . While I have been looking at one of these places on Gravier Street, Two Gentlemen have arrived, one of whom I have Seen in the Saloon, he is a young Planter and come to purchase a girl to take care of his children, or whatever duties he may think proper to impose upon her. The other person is a Doctor whom he has brought with him for the purpose of examining her. They pass along the front of the row in company with the agent or Salesman. As they move forward One is called upon to stand up, then another while a passive examination is made. Then finally he discovers a bright mulatto, who appears about 16 years of age and is quite good looking. She is ushered into a private room where she is stripped to a nude condition and a careful examination is made of all parts of the body by the Dr. and is pronounced by him to be sound. The money is then paid and she is transferred to her new owner...I have heard that the Masters beat and scourge them most cruelly. But I have not seen anything of the kind, nor do I believe that it occurs very often. For the southern people as a class are Noble minded kind hearted people, as can be found in any country...And moreover it would be against their own interests, to brutally treat their Slaves. As no planter desired to have sick negroes on his hands. According to my judgment so far as my experience extends, I believe that the Negroes as a class, are far more humanely treated and taken care of, Than are the laboring classes of European countries (1).
Enslavement could not have existed and certainly could not have persisted without medical science. However, physicians were also dependent upon slavery, both for economic security and for the enslaved “clinical material” that fed the American medical research and medical training that bolstered physicians’ professional advancement. Gardiner’s vignette suggests the integral role of medicine in enslavement and repeats a key belief—that slave owners and physicians shared an interest in preserving the slave’s health, “as no planter desired to have sick negroes on his hands.” But although medicine was essential to enslavement, the apparent solicitude for the health of slaves was not all it seemed. Rather, the medical interests of the slave were often diametrically opposed to the interests of his owner and of American physicians. From the first, antagonism reigned between African Americans and their physicians.
Between the seventeenth–century advent of African settlers to North America and the end of the nineteenth century, the slave and the physician shared an unrecognizably primitive medical world. The “germ theory” that revealed the microbial nature of much disease and led to the first grand waves of disease cures was still well in the future: The existence of pathogens (2) such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi was unsuspected. Almost no effective treatments existed for prevalent diseases until the eighteenth century. Until the late 1830s, the lack of effective anesthesia made the few common surgical procedures horribly painful and all others impossible.
Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, medicine in the United States reflected a narrowly limited understanding of disease and a rather cursory training of medical practitioners. Public–health institutions were few, feeble, and ephemeral, rising momentarily with epidemics of yellow fever or smallpox and subsiding from neglect after the crisis resolved. Even the simplest public–health measures—hand washing and antiseptic techniques, clean water, sound, pathogen–free housing, an untainted food supply, sewage management, and quantitative disease reporting were all in the future. Because there were only a few effective disease therapies and no antibiotics, epidemics of yellow fever, malaria, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases frequently raged unchecked. In the early 1700s, this mirrored the situation in England and the rest of Europe, but medicine on the Continent began to undergo modernizing changes, although these were very slow to cross the Atlantic. Europe began to embrace public–health measures and medical advances such as widespread vaccination, scientific medical education, and the rise of the hospital, but American progress lagged behind, especially in the insular South.
The point of this chapter’s unflattering précis of nascent American medicine is not to castigate it for its primitivism, but to put blacks’ historical aversion to medical care into context, for most antebellum blacks were subjected to southern medicine.
The South was a particularly unhealthy region and was home to 90 percent of American blacks, the majority of whom were enslaved until 1865. The first blacks arrived in the colonies in 1619, and by 1700 there were only about 20,000 blacks. But as the slave trade flourished, 20,000 more blacks arrived each year. Although 30 percent of transported slaves died in the nightmare of the Middle Passage, there were 550,000 chattel slaves in the United States by 1776, when blacks constituted 20 percent of the U.S. population. By 1807, slave importation was legally prohibited throughout the country, and by 1860, the nation’s four million enslaved blacks had a value equivalent to four billion dollars today. In some states, the black population completely comprised slaves: Alabama, for example, forbade the presence of free blacks.
The South was the nadir of the American medical experience, visited by a deadly triple confluence—the pathogens of North America, Europe, and Africa. This unholy trinity yielded a bewildering array of unfamiliar infectious diseases, such as hookworm, types of malaria, and yellow fever, incubated by a subtropical climate that was hospitable year–round to pathogens that could not thrive in the colder North. Even familiar European illnesses flared anew in strangely virulent forms, abetted by the hot, marshy climate, poor sanitation, and a public–health vacuum. Although the South harbored a highly visible affluent class, the region’s relative poverty led to a dearth of medical care and a host of unrecognized nutritional–deficiency diseases. So did enslavement.
A dramatically misunderstood set of disease etiologies led to the adoption of heroic remedies calculated to kill or cure. Through the eighteenth century, Western medicine was not only misinformed but dangerously so. Caustic medicines of the period often contained metabolic poisons such as arsenic, or calomel, (3) a compound of mercury and chlorine that was used as a purgative. Many other remedies contained highly toxic substances such as mercury and addictive Schedule II narcotics, including the opiates laudanum, (4) opium, and morphine, as well as cocaine derivatives. These medicines addicted, sickened, or killed outright; they also could trigger chemical pneumonitis, or progressive lung injury, if inhaled during a bout of iatrogenic, or physician–triggered, vomiting. No studies seem to have been done on this point, but such lung injuries may have helped to account for slaves’ higher death rate from respiratory disease.
Induced vomiting was an everyday event because the common denominator of medical techniques in this period was the violent release of bodily fluids. Copious bleeding, blistering, and the induction of violent diarrhea were standard therapies. Harsh laxatives or “draughts” such as calomel or jalap (5) produced copious diarrhea, which leached nutrients, water, and electrolytes from the body. They also invited painful bedsores, which were open to infection unchallenged by antibiotics. These crude therapies were not only unpleasant but debilitating to ill persons and even to the strong and healthy. Arsenic, for example, produced not only the intended vomiting and diarrhea but also a wide range of other problems, including fainting, heart disease, disorders of the nervous system, gangrene, and cancers (6). Mercury’s very serious effects included injury to the nervous system, profound mental deficits, hair and tooth loss, kidney and heart disease, lung injury, and respiratory distress. Mercury crossed the placental barrier and concentrated in breast milk, contributing to the high black infant–death and birth–defect rates (7).
Such ministrations were often fatal. The 1799 death of George Washington, hastened by a copious bloodletting the debilitated former president could ill afford, is perhaps the best–known example of a patient finished off by the misguided heroics of eighteenth–century medicine. However, whites of the slave–owning class enjoyed better initial health, better nutrition, and less exposure to environmental pathogens and parasites than did enslaved blacks. Slave owners did not suffer from overwork and exposure, so they were better able than slaves to withstand the rigors of bloodletting. Sensing this, many physicians and scientists discouraged bloodletting for slaves. Thomas Jefferson, statesman and amateur physician–scientist, wrote unequivocally, “Never bleed a negro.” (8) But in their everyday practices, physicians didn’t listen. Dr. Lunsford Yandell wrote, “On March 16, 1833 I was called before sunrise to visit a Negro woman. I took from her twelve ounces of blood...I waited about fifteen minutes when she had a severe convulsion.” (9) Such techniques as ...
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