Born Dead: The Culture of Slavery in American Medicine, Then and Now.

Vincent Benlloch is a second-year Philosophy major whose main hobbies include misunderstanding people, being pretentious, and engaging in insufferable debates about epistemology.

The history of medicine and the history of race in the U.S. are deeply interwoven. Both medical science and the conception of hierarchical categories of race are intrinsically linked, to the point of being almost inseparable. The edifice of modern medicine as we know of it today is built upon the bodies of the lower class, and even more so of persons of color, specifically black bodies. One cannot conceive of a history of medicine in the United States without examining the widespread exploitation and misuse of black bodies. Our medical schools were legitimized by the accessibility of black cadavers for anatomical dissection [1]. Our early medical journals and museums are filled with descriptions, excavations, and appropriated physical material of black bodies, non-consenting and purposefully rendered anonymous [2]. Our very conception of whiteness as a positive normative category is founded on a medicalized inferiority of slaves and a fundamental devaluing of slave culture in all aspects [3]. In short, one cannot excise the exploitation of black bodies from the foundations of medicine in the U.S. We would not have medicine as such without slavery; we would not have whiteness without blackness.

Despite my constituting these issues in the vague past of “history,” let me be crystal clear: slavery is not dead. Slavery is not something to be confined to past histories or antiquity. Slavery persists today, or more accurately, “the afterlife of slavery” [4]:

If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a toolong memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery.

Though one must, one need not only look to abhorrent rates of incarceration, police brutality, or the arbitrary killing of black bodies by the state to witness the realties of the past into present. One can look at the modern black experience with health and medicine to witness a racial health divide, a medical apartheid: infant mortality of African Americans is doubled that of whites; black women are 2.2 times more likely do die of breast cancer then white women; black men have the nation’s highest rates of prostate and lung cancers; more generally, blacks are dying en masse from common ailments that have higher rates of treatment and prevention in white bodies [5].

What has been highlighted statistically can be thought of paradigmatically: anti-blackness. Scholars of Afro-pessimism such as Frank B. Wilderson III, Saidiya Hartman, and Jared Sexton have defined anti-blackness as a negative identity category that carries with it necessary instances of oppression, violence, dehumanization and a pre-configured social death. In another time, post-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon spoke of being a slave to his own appearance, of an “overdetermination from without,” of the nature of the black soul as a white artifact [6]. One can also find the essence of anti-blackness just as well in J.B. Lenoir tune, “Born Dead”: “Every black child born in Mississippi/ you know the poor child is born dead.” There is history to this paradigm, one of a culture of slavery that materialized in moments of medical experimentation on black bodies.

The following accounts come from either historian Stephen Kenny’s “Power, opportunism, racism: Human Experiments Under American Slavery,” or the oral dictation of the former slave, John Brown. These instances have been selected, not because they show the singular horror or exceptional brutality of a few crazed or sadistic practitioners, but rather because they illuminate the ubiquity of slave experimentation as an acceptable method of inquiry and practice within a Southern medicine that “was harsh, ineffective, and experimental by nature,” to say the absolute least [7] .

Case 1: In South Carolina circa 1848, Dr. Harvey Leonidas Byrd and Dr. T.J. Dozier administered an hour and 53 minutes of electroconvulsive current to a twelve-year-old slave girl named Harriet. Having been sent by her master to remedy her violent, convulsive spasms, Harriet had already been subject to heroic medical remedies of the day: bleeding, blistering, and purging. When those proved ineffectual, she was attached to an electro-magnetic battery and subsequently shocked. She was physically resistant to the therapy, to the point that the two doctors and another male medical assistant had to constrain her, and even cried out, “your are burning my back” several minutes after the current had stopped. The doctors construed this pained vocalization simply as proof that the treatment was a resounding success, considering that Harriet had not been able to speak during her seizures in the past [8].

Case 2: This example takes place from 1817 to 1826 also in South Carolina. While a medical student, soon to be Dr. Elias S. Bennett had access to a two-year-old slave girl born on his family’s plantation. She had developed a tumor behind her right ear, and Bennett, in an instance of medical hubris that typified Southern medicine, decided to perform what would end up being a failed surgery on it. The surgery led to the spread and growth of other tumors, one of which grew to the size of an ostrich egg by the time she was 6. The experimental history continued as Bennett purchased the girl, now 11, after he graduated from medical school. She would die at the age of 17—a piece of his personal property— with Bennett memorializing her in his medical accounts as overrun by venereal proclivities and the constant need for masturbation. After her death, Bennett would dissect her body, removing her skull and gifting it to a medical collection in Baltimore [9].

Case 3: 1846. A “mulatto” slave man between the ages of thirty and forty came under the medical watch of slave-owner-physician A.B. Crook. Previously exhibited as a medical curiosity to a group of doctors, the slave man, who had a pulsating tumor that resembled “the external end of the mahogany knob of a chest of drawers,” had been diagnosed with a fungal infection. Despite an admitted unfamiliarity with such a disease, Crook deemed the diagnosis faulty and went to immediate work on the slave man in an attempt to enliven his own “white professional capital.” Prior to Crook’s intervention, the man’s skull had been initially trephined, leading to the growth of the tumor, which in turn caused degradation of major motor and speech skills: he could not control the right side of his body and was rendered physically incapable of speech. Crook first attempted ligature of the tumor, and after failing over the course of 4-5 days, removed the tumor along with a portion of “healthy looking brain;” post surgery, the portions of the brain protruded and continued to inflame and expand over the course of weeks until the slave expired, with “a large amount of very offensive, grumous, rather thick fluid discharged with the brain and blood…”[10].

Case 4: Enslaved on a plantation in the 1840’s, John Brown was subject to a variety of experimental tests and procedures administered by a local doctor named Thomas Hamilton, all under the collusive discretion of his master, Stevens. Primarily, Hamilton was concerned with finding a cure for sun stroke; in order to test the efficacy of his various concoctions, he had a few of Stevens’ slaves construct a pit filled with oak bark on the periphery of the plantation. The pit would be set alight with a stool resting on a plank immediately above the fire, and John Brown, who had been forced to strip naked, would sit on the stool after being administered one of Dr. Hamilton’s medicines and monitored until he collapsed from heat exhaustion. Hamilton, marking the degree of heat with each session, would conduct these trials seemingly ad infinitum until he had a marketable product. Each session was conducted after Brown’s full day of work on the plantation. Due to his experimentation on John Brown, Hamilton became obsessed with finding the physiological differences between blacks and whites [11].

From Brown’s own testimony:

He set to work to ascertain how deep my black skin went. This he did by applying blisters to my hands, legs and feet, which bear the scars to this day. He continued until he drew up the dark skin from between the upper and the under one. He used to blister me at intervals of about two weeks [12].

Each of these cases, however cruel, deluded, or outright brutal they may seem, are not by any means exceptional or rare. To digress briefly, if one were to conduct a cursory online search regarding slave experimentation, one would be immediately met with the names J. Marion Sims and Crawford Long. Sims is considered to be a pioneer of modern gynecology and obstetrics. Statues of him litter medical campuses and public spaces across the U.S. as he developed the speculum as well as a working surgery and surgical position for operating on vesicovaginal fistulas—a post-birth complication that leads to uncontrollable urination and infection. Though there is a debate surrounding the possible granting of consent by his enslaved patients, Sims only performed his initial surgeries on enslaved women, the majority of which he purchased for purposes of unbridled experimentation, with some patients operated on over thirty times. Despite his fame and general acclaim, Sims was instrumental in promoting damaging myths surrounding female and black bodies. He saw vaginal surgery as minor and denied anesthetic for every single surgery performed on black patients and helped promulgate the medical stereotype that black women retain a much higher pain tolerance than white patients [13]. Crawford Long is noted for his development of ether as an anesthetic. He is also generally revered and cited as a modern medical pioneer; he experimented heavily on two enslaved boys by testing various amounts of ether on them during amputations of some of their toes and fingers [14]. Both Sims and Long are cited in debates concerning medical ethics and the lineages of abuse and racism in medicine, and justifiably so. However, what I and other scholars want to show is that these cases are not exceptional, especially in light of the greater culture of slavery that they emerged from. Simply put, “white racist attitudes, the enormous traffic in human chattel and the slave regime rationalised and normalised the use and abuse of black bodies” [15].

Returning to the present, we can conceive of a culture of slavery as constituted currently. Afro-pessimist scholar Jared Sexton outlines such a culture clearly:

Structural vulnerability to appropriation, perpetual and involuntary openness, including all the wanton uses of the body […] should be understood as the paradigmatic conditions of black existence in the Americas, the defining characteristics of New World anti-blackness. In short, the black, whether slave or ‘free,’ lives under the commandment of whites [16].

Slavery established this paradigm of “New World anti-blackness” which stretches over the American continent, a suffocating and constraining fascia that envelops all individuals rendered black. In reviewing a few of the many cases of medical experimentation on slave bodies, I wish to show how racism and the exploitation of African Americans are pillars of American medicine. Greater still, I wish to make immensely clear how a culture of slavery, of the predisposed ontological death of blacks, undergirds and perpetuates our current American culture and settles itself firmly within our medical industry.


[1] Todd Savitt, “The Use of Blacks for Medical Experimentation and Demonstration in the Old South,” The Journal of Southern History 48 (1982): 331-335.

[2] Stephen C. Kenny, “Power, opportunism, racism: Human experiments under American slavery,” Endeavour 39 (2015): 14-16.

[3] Sharla Fett, “Spirit and Power,” in Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[4] Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008): 5.

[5] Harriet A. Washington, “Introduction,” in Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on  Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Doubleday, 2007): 8-10.

[6] Frantz Fanon, “The Fact of Blackness,” in Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967).

[7] Todd Savitt, “The Use of Blacks for Medical Experimentation and Demonstration in the Old South,” 348.

[8] Stephen C.  Kenny, “Power, opportunism, racism: Human experiments under American slavery,” 10-11.

[9] Ibid, 13-14.

[10] Ibid, 14-16.

[11] John Brown, Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England, ed. L.A. Chamerovzow, Documenting the American South, (North Carolina: University of North Carolina, 2001): 45-52.

[12] Ibid, 48.

[13] Stephen C. Kenny, “‘I can do the child no good’: Dr. Sims and the Enslaved Infants of Montgomery, Alabama,” Social History of Medicine 20 (2007): 223-241; Harriet A. Washington, “Introduction,” 5-7.

[14] Stephen C. Kenny, “Power, opportunism, racism: Human experiments under American slavery,” 12, 15, 17, 20.

[15] Ibid, 20; Todd Savitt, “The Use of Blacks for Medical Experimentation and Demonstration in the Old South.”

[16] Jared Sexton, “Racial Profiling and the Societies of Control,” in Warfare in the Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy (Durham & London: Duke University Press 2007): 202.

Further Reading:

Kenny, Stephen C. “The Development of Medical Museums in the Antebellum American South: Slave Bodies in Networks of Anatomical Exchange.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 87 (2013): 32-62.

Lederer, Susan. Subjected to Science: Human Experimentation in America before the Second World War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Smithers, Gregory. Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American Memory. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013.

Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Wilderson III, Frank B. Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.