It isn’t often that I read books that keep me awake at nights but Harriet Washington (no relation)'s “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History Of Medical Experimentation Upon Black Americans From Colonial Times To The Present” (Doubleday, 2007) was one of them. Although what she terms African American “iatrophobia”( fear and suspicion of the healer/doctor in Greek) is usually thought to stem from the “Tuskegee experiments”(in which black men with syphilis were allowed to die over a period of forty years as part of a Public Health Service study from 1932 to 1972 just so that doctors could study the disease’s progress), Ms Washington makes it chillingly clear that it was simply the tip of an exceedingly ugly iceberg beginning in colonial times when the first slaves were brought to the then Colonies. Doctors routinely bought slaves to medically experiment upon - often without anaesthetic( pace James Sims, “father of gynaecology”, whose statue still stands outside New York’s premier medical school as well as that of his native South Carolina), provided racist justification for slavery like “drapetomia”( a “disease” whose symptoms were running away from slavery and were presumably treated with a “good flogging”), wilfully exposed blacks to toxic and dangerous substances like radioactive materials( "everybody knows that the darkies don’t feel pain as we whites do), see chapters like “The Surgical Theatre” “Circus Africanus” “Nuclear Winter” and “The Black Stork”, “Caged Subjects”, engaged in body snatching of African American corpses to feed medical schools need for cadavers.
Space alone-not to mention my sense of revulsion does not allow for me to mention all the horrors perpetrated upon slaves and their descendants except to dispose of one defence frequently made of the likes of Sims and his ilk; viz that we should not judge said individuals living in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries before the rise of the Civil Rights movement by our own modernstandards( the other defence that it’s more or less OK for blacks to suffer whilst whites reap the benefits-shades of slavery -is simply racist more or less in essence)-this argument is BALONEY. The reason that American doctors(who from colonial times to at least the 1960s were not only mainly white but also male) felt they could act so was simply because African Americans, be they slaves or nominal free men and women esp in the “Jim Crow” Deep South( though by no means limited to “Dixie”) had no rights- a white patient might sue and if found guilty by a court would not only lose his license to practice( similar ro being disbarred for a lawyer) but might even have to go to jail, whereas a black had no recourse.
If you read no other book this summer, then do so for “Medical Apartheid” but be warned beforehand; it is NOT for the fainthearted or squeamish!