“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and most inhumane.” p. 3
Martin Luther King, spoken in Montgomery, AL at the end of the Montgomery march.
The history of medical research and experimentation in America goes back to the eighteenth century. Much of the early historical information focused on the differences and imagined inferiority of the differentiated races. Early in the history of America’s founding slavery and the dispossession of native peoples had to be aligned with Christian orthodoxy and that could not be accomplished without scientific proof that there was a hierarchy among the identified races. False scientific research, such as measuring the capacity of skulls from different races of humans, was believed to be one way to prove a racial hierarchy in intelligence. As the need to prevent the spread of disease became more important to human survival, experimentation for disease cure and prevention took on a more important role in society.
Medical Apartheid chronicles the history of medical experimentation on African Americans from the colonial period to the present and covers a range of topics including the more common topics like the Tuskegee Syphilis study, but other lesser known experiments such as the research done on prisoners at Holmesbury Prison and the experiments of child disruptive behavior from 1992 to 1997 performed by New York City’s New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University’s Lowenstein Center for the Study and Prevention of Childhood Disorders, whose research was designed to establish a link between genetics and violence, notably focusing on children of color.
Harriet A. Washington has had a distinguished career as a fellow at the Harvard Medical School and scholar at the National Center for Bioethics at Tuskegee University. Medical Apartheid is exceptional in its range of subject matter and the emphasis on the social significance of targeting African Americans for these projects some of which have a resent history and coordinated by some of the most prestigious learning institutions in America.
Medical Apartheid begins with an introduction of one of the most notorious figures in America’s history of medical experimentation, James Marion Sims M.D., 1813 – 1883. Sims is known as the father of gynecological medicine and is credited with discovering necessary treatments for women’s health and the development of specialized instruments for that purpose. He was elected president of the American Medical Association and has a statue, in New York City, commemorating his achievements. With the publication of Medical Apartheid we also know that he performed dangerous and painful medical experiments on slave women without anesthesia. The brutality of these experiments was not atypical for this period of American medical research as conventional opinions at the time categorized black people as a species whose physiology was not completely human. White physicians saw blacks as naturally contagious and had a higher threshold for pain, making them obvious subjects for research without regard for their welfare. The thesis of Washington’s book is that black slaves, and black people in general, have been targeted for medical and commercial experimentation from slavery until for 1990’s, when codes of ethics and public outcry finally put an end to its practice.
“In Baltimore, the bodies of colored people exclusively are taken for dissection, because the whites do not like it and the colored people cannot resist.” Harriet Martineau, Retrospective Of Western Travel P. 115
Standards for scientific research were defined by the moral consciousness of the period and the needs of finding cures for illnesses that were constant threats to the welfare of society. Pellagra, syphilis and tuberculosis were illnesses that demanded a national response and black people were the obvious resource for exploitation in the race to find cures for societies infectious epidemics. Washington illustrates the establishment of medical schools and the corresponding need for cadavers necessary for discection. This need created an underground system of grave robbing that medical schools and research laboratories depended on to further their research and the education of medical students. Aspiring medical students determined which school of medicine they would apply to based, in part, on whether or not the school could provide enough cadavers for dissection to satisfy their training requirements.
Addie Mae Collins was one of the 4 young girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. 30 years after her burial, her 2 sisters, Janie Gaines and Sarah Cox visited her grave. Disgusted at how poorly the grave had been maintained they decided to have their sister moved to a better maintained cemetery. When the grave was opened, the body of their sister was missing. Addie Mae’s body had apparently been stolen. Washington writes that no one knows for certain when or where the body was taken, but it is assumed that Addie Mae Collins is one of thousands of bodies taken from black cemeteries only to end up on an anatomists table.
“I am disturbed that the World Medical Association is now hedging on its clause about [not] using criminals as experimental material. The American influence has been at work on its suspension. One of the nicest [American] scientist I know was heard to say, “criminals in our penitentiaries are fine experimental material-and much cheaper than chimpanzees.” “pertinax,” British Medical Journal, January 1963 p. 244
One of the most vulnerable populations available for medical exploitation has been America’s imprisoned. The author gives a chilling account of how prisoners were exploited for the financial gain of scientist seeking notoriety in medical journals or profits from commercial interests. The author references a multitude of resources that illustrate the depravity exercised in the use of prisoners for research. Washington connects the needs and wants of the prisoners, such as the money offered for their participation as research subjects and their vulnerability to escape the confines of the often brutal prison environment for the seemingly safe research laboratory. Some of the most respected universities in America have been the beneficiary of research grants for their collaboration in medical research using the incarcerated as test subjects.
“[It was] cheaper to use niggers than cats because they were everywhere and cheap experimental animals.” neurosurgeon Harry Bailey M.D. Speech delivered at Tulane Medical School p.10
Medical Apartheid is an engrossing presentation of how Black Americans have been victimized as test subjects in America’s search for cures for illnesses and supposed mental abnormalities like violent behavior. It should be no surprise that many of these activities continued to exist while standards were implemented to prevent such behavior. This book goes a long way to define the concept of white supremacy in America. I highly recommend it.