African Americans and Medicine: from Slavery to Modern Times

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African Americans and Medicine: From Slavery to Modern Times

Imagine being sick, but never going to a doctor because you knew they would do bad things to you, make you sicker, or even kill you. When we see doctors, we are trusting them to make the best decisions to help us. However, there was a time when doctors committed the most heinous acts against those who needed them. African American’s have been used for unethical studies and cases since the time of slavery. Some were used against their will, while others were taken advantage of by the people who were supposed to take care of them. The earlier cases of this inhumane treatment were scarcely documented, but through tales and word of mouth were passed from generation to generation. African Americans never forgot what happened to their ancestors or what could still possibly happen to them and as a result lead to the mentality that they should stay away from hospitals and doctors, furthermore creating a culture of fear surrounding institutional medicine.

Unfair treatment of African Americans started during the time of slavery. In Slavery and Medicine: Enslavement and Medical Practices in Antebellum Louisiana, author Katherine Bankole describes the mentality of whites and white slave owners which dictated the treatment of slaves medically. Bankole says, “The three main areas of enslavement and medicine in the antebellum period are: theory, management, and experimentation” (Bankole 8), doctors theorized that the biology of Africans was innately inferior to that of the white race. The second area, management, involved “general health, disease, diet/nutrition, clothing, mortality, and the medical costs incurred by slaveowners.” (Bankole 8) Medical management was the most important factor that determined the success of a slave owners land. The healthier a slave was, the more he could work and produce a profit for the slave owner. This meant health care was provided at a lower cost to those who owned slaves. Through this management came the development of medical and scientific journals as well as pamphlets and almanacs. The last area discussed was experimentation. Records show documented cases of surgeries and experimental treatment and procedures. The cases show how doctors built their careers using slaves as their subjects. Slaves were used in painful surgeries against their will. Consent only needed to be given by the slave owner. A slave could receive treatment if the slave owner found it cost effective to the value of the slave. Bankole also notes, “Often slave owners equate the care they provided to enslaved Africans to the care provided to horses or other farm/plantation animals”(Bankole 28). Although it is not completely certain how slaves felt about their medical treatment, due to the fact no documentation was taken from them on this subject, through stories and folklore there is an indication that “some Africans expressed a significant fear of doctors and hospitals” (Bankole 20) . The legends indicate stories of Night Doctors, who were said to have paid slaves to dig up newly buried bodies.

African Americans played the largest role in medical advancements. In The Use of Blacks for Medical Experimentation and Demonstration in the Old South, Todd Savitt explains how “southern white medical educators and researchers relied greatly on the availability of Negro patients for various purposes. Black bodies often found their way to dissecting tables, operating amphitheatres, classroom or beside demonstrations, and experimental facilities.” (Savitt 331). Though poor whites as well as European immigrants were plentiful in the northern cities of the south, blacks were easier targets because they were a voiceless people in a racially divided society. During this time bodies were greatly needed for teaching purposes. “Students had to learn anatomy, recognize and diagnose diseases, and treat conditions requiring surgery; researchers had to try out their ideas and new...
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