“Reviewing the way in which Black bodies were commodified and medicalized helps us to better analyze the systemic racism that remains structural in medical institutions today,” – Elvira Swartch Lorenzo

By Elvira Swartch Lorenzo • 

Originally published on Afroféminas Magazine


There is an untold story between slavery and medicine and the decisive role that enslaved Africans, both living and dead, play in the development of medical advances. It is a story of coercion, from which their voices emerge from the past.

The development of American medicine is due, in an embarrassingly large part, to new medical practices and theories used by white physicians to treat Black bodies on plantations, in experiments performed on the bodies of the enslaved.

Enslaved subjects were commodified and medicalized between the 18th and 19th centuries. There is a history of medical experiments that medical science developed at the expense of Black bodies, but also despite the resistance of the enslaved to the objectification of their own bodies. This reveals the power relations inherent in the production of medical knowledge. It also shows the decisive role that the Black body created by medicine and the market played in strengthening the racial hierarchy, mainly in the United States.

Gynecological science

Medical experiments on Black women between 1800 and 1850 were the cornerstone of the foundations of gynecological science, under the auspices of Dr. J. Marion Sims of Alabama.

To get an idea of what this means, we must understand the terrible living conditions of enslaved Black women, as well as sexual violence and reproductive politics. Reproductive medicine was key to maintaining slavery and ensuring its success. The medical observations of doctors like Sims, who were mainly white men from the social, economic and intellectual elite of the American South, affected the flows of the country’s slave markets: they decided the price of each woman sold, according to their qualities. reproductive. But the bodies of the slaves were not only economic capital for the white plantation owners, but also “medical” capital for the doctors who wanted to do their scientific practices.

The experiences of Black women on the plantations must be seen in relation to the efforts of the plantation owners to increase their reproductive work and the potential benefit they represented to the slave infrastructure in the South. The horrific sexual exploitation suffered by the enslaved often went hand in hand with medical scans and publications that medicated sexual assault and its physical effects on women. 

Black women’s bodies were conceived as “strange and pathological.” Medical beliefs about the existence of inherent biological differences between Black people and white people coexisted with white doctors conducting medical experiments on Black bodies to produce universally applicable science. The funny thing lies in the fact that doctors conceived the bodies of the enslaved as naturally designed to have children and therefore particularly healthy, physically speaking, at the same time that they are believed to be biologically inferior. One of the most important functions of the Black body targeted by white physicians was that Black women were used largely for the benefit of the reproductive health of white women.

White doctors thought that Black women were bodies in which diseases could be localized and problematized, thus forming the quintessence of 19th century medical teaching and consumerism.

Experiments carried out on Black women on plantations to achieve gynecological advances are only part of the multi-faceted story of white doctors exploiting slaves for scientific purposes. To learn medical practices in real-life situations, physicians often attended anatomy classes taught in medical schools. Across the United States, these classes frequently relied on dissecting the corpses of the enslaved.

This is only a small part of the links between slavery and medicine. This story tells us about how the social was biologized, how bodies were controlled, and how slavery maintained its exploitation of the bodies of work.

Reviewing the way in which Black bodies were commodified and medicalized helps us to better analyze the systemic racism that remains structural in medical institutions today.

Sources:

Deirdre Cooper Owens , Medical Bondage Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017)

Rana A. Hogarth, Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017)


Elvira Swartch Lorenzo is a regular contributing writer for Afroféminas, and a daughter of Afro-Colombian migrants.

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