“This Abominable Traffic”: Physicians’ Perspectives on Slavery and the Origins of Present-Day Health Disparities

By Lucy Berrington, M.S.
Vital Signs Editor 

Image courtesy of the Countway Library of MedicinePreventing slaves from dying of cholera was a matter of humanity as well as economic self-interest, a physician told slaveholders in 1832. “You have reason to be seriously apprehensive of great mortality upon your plantations, unless you take timely measures to guard against the evil,” wrote Christopher Yates, M.D. — a man who described himself as accustomed to the backlash that his medical advice tended to incite. Dr. Yates’s recommendations included improving slave dwellings, observing slaves stealthily for signs of illness, and persuading slaves that cholera was mortal only to “the dissipated, the lazy, and the filthy.”

That guide for slaveholders (Advice to the Planters of the Southern States) is part of a searching online exhibit created by the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (an alliance between Boston Medical Library, the official library of the MMS, and Harvard Medical Library). “This Abominable Traffic: Physicians on Slavery” draws on the library’s rare book and manuscript collections, which include physicians’ accounts of slavery and racism. “Physicians were some of  the most well- traveled individuals of their day and had many opportunities to witness slavery in the West Indies and United States,” says Jack Eckert, the librarian who curated the exhibit.

The exhibit reveals a profession whose members encountered slavery in different ways, active and passive, and responded to it just as variously. In several accounts, the writer’s disgust is evident. “The ‘breeding’ of the human species is carried on just as that of cattle is carried on,” wrote Marshall Hall, an English physician who traveled in America in 1854. Some physicians, however, were using “scientific racism” to justify slavery; John Van Evrie, M.D., argued in the 1850s and ’60s that slavery was the “normal condition” of an “inferior race.” Others occupied a conflicted middle ground. A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery by physician Jesse Torrey included “reflections on the practicability of restoring the moral rights of the slave, without impairing the legal privileges of the possessor.” Dr. Torrey’s 1817 narrative included accounts of “free coloured people” in Delaware attacked in the night, kidnapped, and sold to slave dealers.

The exhibit illuminates the historical origins of contemporary health determinants, says Scott Podolsky, M.D., professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and director of the Center for the History of Medicine. “We all share the legacy of slavery and its impact on present health care disparities. We also support ongoing examination of the history of the Harvard faculty and how they thought about race itself,” says Dr. Podolsky, who chairs the MMS Committee on History. The exhibit was conceived to complement a symposium on slavery and public health at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. “There’s been a general movement over the past few years among education institutions in the U.S. to investigate their historic ties to slavery and its legacy,” says Eckert. The exhibit concludes on a relatively hopeful note, commemorating some of the earliest African Americans to be awarded medical degrees, immediately after the Civil War — physicians born not into slavery but of it.

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