Dark Medicine: racism, power and the culture of American slavery

The history of human experimentation is as old as the practice of medicine and has always targeted disadvantaged, marginalised, institutionalised, stigmatised and vulnerable populations – prisoners, the condemned, orphans, the mentally ill, students, the poor, women, the disabled, children, peoples of colour, indigenous peoples and the enslaved. Dark Medicine is a research project exploring the disturbing connections between slavery, race and medicine in nineteenth-century America. The monograph I am working towards will reveal the deep-rooted racist nature of medical education, research, and practice under slavery, the career opportunities that so-called ‘Negro medicine’ brought, and the enormous scale and intensity of the medical profession's exploitation of enslaved ‘subjects’.

The generally accepted academic view is that southern medical practice, during slavery’s antebellum era (1780–1861), was a simple ‘country medicine’ in need of professional reform and that it was slow to adopt a scientific approach to education and research. Blending the historical literatures of slavery, race and medicine, Dark Medicine will provide a revision to established interpretations, and reveal that the whole fabric of antebellum southern medicine, relying upon racist ideology and systematic exploitation of the enslaved, took the opportunity to experiment on the bodies of black people to advance doctors’ personal and professional agendas.

Promotional image for so-called ‘Negro hospital’ – the Touro Infirmary in New Orleans (reproduced with permission of the Touro Infirmary archives).

Dark Medicine will demonstrate that all of the key training, networks and power bases of southern medicine – apprenticeships, private practice, colleges, hospitals, journals, and societies – operated through slavery’s ruthless traffic and exploitation of black bodies. White medical students, as a matter of course, expected education and training based on the observation, dissection and experimental treatment of black bodies. White doctors, including those in remote rural locations, routinely sent reports of experiments on slave subjects to medical journals and trafficked black bodies to medical colleges. Medical museums openly solicited black body parts and medical societies relied on black bodies. Students too wrote graduating theses based on the medical manipulation of black ‘subjects’ and ‘specimens.’ Furthermore, Dark Medicine will bring to light an extensive network of specialist ‘Negro hospitals’. The grimmest of slavery’s institutions, these hospitals were often sites of risky medical research and were closely linked to ‘Negro traders’ anxious to patch up their ‘stock’ for sale. Large numbers of individual doctors routinely advertised in southern newspapers that they would pay cash for black people suffering from chronic disease. The fate of these trafficked medical subjects, of course, assumed the very worst possibilities.

Concentrating on American slavery in the Deep South states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the book will use a systematic and analytical approach to several types of white and black primary sources. The core base of evidence includes hospital admission books, records of lunatic asylums, medical college circulars, medical society transactions, MD theses, 'advice' essays in agricultural journals, and newspaper advertisements for ‘Negro hospitals’ and runaway slaves.

Dr Stephen Kenny
University of Liverpool