The use of African-American slaves, both living and dead, as
guinea pigs for extreme medical experiments is one practice that was rampant
during slavery. And even till today, in America, the less privileged in the society,
majorly people of African descent are used to test diseases and cures in many laboratories.
African Americans were easy targets for ambitious and
entrepreneurial white physicians in the slave south. Because the slaves had no
rights of their own, the slave owners could sell the living or the body of the
dead African slaves to these doctors.
This practice was way worse in the deep South, and it was
heightened by their acrimonious hate for the African slaves. Accounts also
narrate that body parts of slaves were also sold on the market to doctors,
scientists, and others for different reasons. The use of the skin of African Americans
for jackets, shoes, and belts, were some of the byproducts of the body parts
business in America.
But there is one question which comes to mind as this article was been written, and that is: How come the caucasian doctors and people could use Africans
for medical experiments and later use the treatments gotten on themselves, when
they actually thought they were a more superior species? Doesn’t it point to a deep-seated
confusion among the caucasian population?
As you ponder on that, we would love to give a few
accounts of this use of black slaves for medical experiments. These accounts were
gotten from the historian Stephen Kenny’s “Power,
opportunism, racism: Human Experiments Under American Slavery,” or the oral
dictation of the former slave, John Brown.
These cases are a reflection of the horror and exceptional
brutality of a few crazed or sadistic practitioners who were involved in slave
experimentation. These accounts point to the harsh, ineffective, and
experimental nature of medicine in America’s history.
In South Carolina around 1848, Dr. Harvey Leonidas Byrd and Dr.
T.J. Dozier administered a 1hour 53 minutes of electro-convulsive current to a
twelve-year-old slave girl named Harriet. Harriet was sent by her master to treat
her violent, convulsive spasms. The little girl was subjected to heroic medical
remedies of the time, which were bleeding, blistering, and purging. When those
remedies proved ineffective, she was attached to an electro-magnetic battery
and subsequently shocked.
She physically resisted the therapy, to the point that of the
two doctors and another male medical assistant had to hold her and bind her. She
even cried out, “you are burning my back”
several minutes after the current had stopped. The doctors interpreted this
her painful outcry simply as proof that the treatment was a resounding success,
considering that she had not been able to speak during her seizures in the
This type of medical experiments took place from 1817 to 1826 in
South Carolina. A medical student, Elias S. Bennett, who was soon to be a Doctor,
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 cockiness, that was typical of Southern medicine, decided to perform
what would end up being a failed surgery on her. The surgery caused the tumor
to spread and grow into other tumors. One
of the tumors grew into the size of an ostrich egg by the time the girl was 6.
After Bennett graduated from medical school, he purchased the
girl and continued his experiments on her. She was then 11 at the time. She
died at the age of 17 under his rigorous medical experimentations and as a
piece of his personal property. Bennet wrote medical accounts about his work on
her, saying that she was overrun by venereal proclivities and a constant need
for masturbation. After her death, Bennett dissected her body, removed her
skull, and gifted it to a medical collection in Baltimore.
In 1846, a “mulatto” slave man between the ages of thirty and
forty came under the medical supervision of slave owner and physician, A.B.
Crook. Previously exhibited as a medical curiosity to a group of doctors, the
slave man, who had a pulsating tumor was diagnosed with a fungal infection.
Even though he admitted he was not familiar with such a disease,
Crook deemed the diagnosis faulty and started immediate work on the slave man
in an attempt to recreate his own “white
Prior to Crook’s intervention, the man’s skull had been
initially cut open, 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, due to these
Crook first attempted tying the tumor, and after failing over
the course of 4-5 days, he removed the tumor along with a portion of “healthy-looking brain”. After the
surgery, the portions of the brain protruded and continued to inflame and
expand over the course of weeks until the slave died, with “a large amount of very offensive, and thick fluid discharged with the
brain and blood…”
In the 1840s, John Brown, a slave on a plantation, was subject
to a variety of experimental tests and procedures administered by a local
doctor named Thomas Hamilton. The experiments were done all under the collusive
discretion of his master, Stevens.
Primarily, Hamilton was interested in finding a cure for sunstroke. 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 one end of the
plantation. The pit would be set on fire with a stool resting on a plank just
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 watched
until he collapsed from heat exhaustion.
Hamilton, would mark the degree of heat in each session, and
then conduct these trials continuously until he had a marketable result. Each
session was carried out after Brown’s full day of work on the plantation. Due
to his experiments on John, Hamilton became obsessed with finding the
physiological differences between blacks and whites.
When John Brown’s gave his testimony about the experiments he
was used for, he said:
“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.”
one does an online search regarding slave experimentation, one would
immediately find the names J. Marion Sims and Crawford Long. Sims has been said
to be a pioneer and father of modern gynecology and obstetrics. His statues
litter medical campuses and public spaces across the United States, as it was,
he who 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 infection and urination.
only performed his initial surgeries on enslaved African women, the majority of
whom he purchased for purposes of unbridled experimentation. It is said that he operated
on some patients over thirty times.
his fame and general reputation in medicine, Sims was instrumental in promoting
damaging myths surrounding female and black bodies. He saw vaginal surgery as a minor one and refused to give anesthesia for every single black patient he
performed surgery on.
helped to promote the medical stereotype that black women retain a much higher
pain tolerance than white patients.
Long is renowned for his development of ether as an anesthetic. He is also
generally revered as a modern medical pioneer. But despite his acclaim, his
methods were somewhat inhumane. He experimented heavily on two enslaved African
boys by testing various amounts of ether on them during amputations of some of
their toes and fingers. That is, he cut off their toes and fingers for
Sims and Crawford are cited in debates about medical ethics and the generational
abuse and racism in medicine.
It is important to note that these few
cases cited here are only but a pinch from the hundreds and thousands of
African slaves who were used for ungodly experiments in America.