Medical Experiments on Slaves

April 28, 2015

An article by Dan Vergano at Buzzfeed alerts us:

Electric shocks, brain surgery, amputations — these are just some of the medical experiments widely performed on American slaves in the mid-1800s, according to a new survey of medical journals published before the Civil War.

Previous work by historians had uncovered a handful of rogue physicians conducting medical experiments on slaves. But the new report, published in the latest issue of the journal Endeavour, suggests that a widespread network of medical colleges and doctors across the American South carried out and published slave experiments, for decades.

Savitt first reported in the 1970s that medical schools in Virginia had trafficked in slaves prior to the Civil War. But historians had seen medical experiments on slaves as a practice isolated to a few physicians — until now.

to the following paper.

Kenny, S.C. Power, opportunism, racism: Human experiments under American slavery. Endeavour,
Volume 39, Issue 1, March 2015, Pages 10–20[Publisher Link]

Kenny writes:

Medical science played a key role in manufacturing and deepening societal myths of racial difference from the earli- est years of North American colonisation. Reflecting the practice of anatomists and natural historians throughout the Atlantic world, North American physicians framed andinscribed the bodies, minds and behaviours of black subjects with scientific and medical notions of fundamental and inherent racial difference. These medical ideas racialised skin, bones, blood, diseases, with some theories specifically designed to justify and defend the institution of racial slavery, but they also manifested materially as differential treatment – seen in medical education, practice and research.

I dunno. Have we changed all that much?

12 Responses to “Medical Experiments on Slaves”

  1. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    Unfortunately, no. I sincerely believe that most of humankind hasn’t changed much. It is only the law that keeps many people at bay. Otherwise there wouldn’t be much difference in 19th century and 21st century practices concerning race.


  2. becca Says:

    We were the inspiration for Hitler’s medical researchers. #ItCantHappenHere


  3. jmz4gtu Says:

    I think we have changed. I think we’ve progressed from dealing with overt, systemic racism, as evidenced by the utilization of “science” to legitimize racist systems.
    It is no longer acceptable to be overtly racist. Sure there are still people out there who are, many of them in positions of authority, but because they cannot directly admit their racism, it is less successful and influencing others and creating a society of oppression.

    Of course, with this new racism we have a whole new bunch of frustrations rooting it out, because its nature is more insidious. It no longer seeks to justify itself with arguments that can be identified and dismantled, most of the time it won’t even admit to itself that it is racism. But while this makes it harder to identify and confront, it also makes it much more difficult to promulgate. If everyone is at least paying lip service to tolerance, than the more impressionable generations will pick it up and internalize it (hopefully).

    What we’re now dealing with, by and large, are the products of systemic racism. I honestly don’t believe that most police are racists, but there is a racial bias to crime in America that is wholly a product of the systemic disenfranchisement of African Americans. This causes vicious cycles of poverty and crime that, even if a person had no racist feelings, could easily cause associations between skin color and likelihood to commit crime.

    So yes, we’ve progressed, but its a giant mess and it will take a long time to clean up. And it won’t happen if we don’t dismantle the aspects of our society that cause it to self-segregate into insular communities, which reinforce and amplify the effects of two centuries of systemic oppression. This means, as you pointed out in your previous post, providing opportunities and education for kids to lift themselves out of poverty.

    We’re fighting a self-reinforcing feedback loop here, and we’ve got to start breaking some of the links in that cycle.


  4. DrugMonkey Says:

    You are absolutely right.


  5. Homosapiens Says:


    I disagree. I think racism (or white supremacy, really) is still endemic in our society. The crimilization of black males, the school to prison pipeline, the systematic dismantling of black communities…all these things are still here with us. Sure, no one is burning crosses in lawns but the effects are the same. Not much has changed.


  6. toto Says:


    I’m not sure there’s much of a contradiction with what jmz wrote, especially the 3rd paragraph.


  7. Homosapiens Says:


    I agree with most of what jmz wrote as well but I do not agree that we have progressed. I think in some respects, things have been going in a worse direction. As a matter of fact, the victims of racism have been sort of lulled into believing that it is a thing of the past and into letting those social structures which were so useful in resisting racsim lapse in the belief that they are no longer needed. I think they are needed even more now.


  8. dsks Says:

    Call me a congenital optimist, but I agree with jmz (who I thing summed it up perfectly) that we’re making progress. Frustratingly slow, agonized progress, but progress nonetheless.

    That said, we obviously didn’t suddenly evolve to be less prejudice in a matter of a few decades, so it’s perhaps a healthy cynicism to be aware that we’re as biologically vulnerable to that sort of thinking as the generations before us. Take nothing for granted and all that.


  9. jmz4gtu Says:

    “As a matter of fact, the victims of racism have been sort of lulled into believing that it is a thing of the past and into letting those social structures which were so useful in resisting racsim lapse in the belief that they are no longer needed.”
    -I wouldn’t say the victims so much as the beneficiaries of racism make these sorts of claims (e.g. Obama being elected means racism is over). That’s also the frustratingly stupid argument that leads people to say things like “affirmative action is racist”, or, the classic “reverse racism” accusations. And I agree those attitudes are prevalent. I disagree that they’re worse than the much more overt racism of the pre-Civil Rights movement era, the repercussions of which are still be felt to this day. I agree with you we need to make sure that the programs and policies brought about by that movement have to stay in place.


  10. Homosapiens Says:


    It is easy to be an optimist if you are not the one under the gun. One should ask oneself why progress is so slow since everyone seems to be so enlightened. Jim Crow is a thing of the past supposedly but in vast areas of the South, it is back under a different guise. The experiments on slaves that are the subject of this blog entry are over 150 years ago but the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments ended within the lifetime of most readers of this blog. There are a ton of studies that show that blacks receive less medical care (less anesthesia for pain etc). Cities are “gentrifying” very fast by removing communities of color from areas that are now “desirable”. Schools are becoming re-segragated through the charter movement. And vast amounts of minorities are becoming cash generators in the private prison industry. All these things didn’t happen in a vaccum. There were choices made at each step that lead to this outcomes.


    When I meant the social structures for resisting the effects of racism, I was not referring to programs and policies. Those are still around (although gradually being chipped away) but by their nature are geared for the benefit of those in power who are for the most part not minorities.

    Perhaps I exaggerated when I said that things are worse today. They are better in some respects, but worse in others in that any meaningful organization and cohesiveness that existed in minority communities is mostly lost. Affirmative action and social welfare policies implemented top down are not going to replace that. This is the sense in which I meant that things are worse, because any permanent change within minority communities cannot take place without internal mobilization.


  11. DJMH Says:

    These days we prefer to conduct our (American Psychological Association-approved) experiments on brown Muslims, so that’s pretty clear progress right there.


  12. Homosapiens Says:


    That’s a facetious way to avoid the topic of the conversation


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