Massachusetts Medical Society: New Resource on Black History in Massachusetts Health Care

New Resource on Black History in Massachusetts Health Care

MMS Committee on History Compiles Annotated Multimedia Bibliography


After the murder of George Floyd and the inequities in health care made more apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic, the medical profession turned inward to examine its own racial biases.

Dr. Eric Reines
Dr. Eric Reines

“Many organizations, including the Massachusetts Medical Society, were spurred to look at ourselves in the mirror and assess what we could do,” says Eric Reines, MD, chair of the MMS Committee on History. Directed by the MMS Antiracism Plan and initiatives on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the Committee on History was charged with examining race and bias in medicine in Massachusetts and within the MMS since its beginnings. As committee members scoured resources that chronicled inequities confronted by patients and physicians, they wrestled with the most effective way of presenting their findings.

What emerged is the “Annotated Multimedia Bibliography of Resources on Black Americans and Health Care in Massachusetts since the Founding of the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1781.” Now available on the MMS website, the bibliography is intended not only for historians and other researchers but also for physicians, students, and anyone interested in Black history or the history of medicine.

“The bibliography has a lot of good, readable, and informative resources across a range of formats, including YouTube and other videos, first-person accounts, and archival material,” says Reines. “I’m hopeful people will look into it and browse around in it. Everyone will find something of interest.” He cites as especially “eye-opening” the book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington.

“If we don’t recognize our own biases, we’ll forever be ignoring people.”

One surprise, Reines says, was that a close reading of the 1923 volume A History of the Massachusetts Medical Society, 1781–1922, by Walter L. Burrage, AM, MD (then secretary of the MMS), revealed only one mention of the Civil War and no mention of slavery or abolition. “This shows that the MMS was keeping silent on these issues, which is disturbing but the truth.”

“One thing about racism is that individuals don’t realize their own biases,” Reines says. “When we know the truth, both the good and the bad, we can be honest. If we don’t recognize our own biases, we’ll forever be ignoring people.”

Among what he learned, Reines says, is that “for a long time, doctors had blinders on and thought social issues and racism were outside of their bailiwick. But now we know they are not.”

“Blaming disease on immigrants or “foreigners,” for example, often was the result of “misplaced awareness,” he says. “It was prejudicial, and it was wrong. . . . When [any one group of] people are left out of the health care system, it is bad for everyone. We all suffer.”

“An excellent start, but . . . what’s been written and documented is not the complete history.”

Among the history committee members who researched sources to include in the bibliography is Sharon Marable, MD, MPH, who joined the committee in 2022. “What I’ve learned from this work is that even in 2023, it is amazing how much people don’t understand about the impact of racism on health equity and what people of African descent have contributed to medicine,” she says. She describes the bibliography as “a valiant effort” and “an excellent start,” but notes that, “as someone who is an African American, I know that what’s been written and documented is not the complete history.”

Dr. Sharon Marable
Dr. Sharon Marable

Experiences are often passed down orally through family stories about lack of care, the disregard for Black people as patients or as research subjects, and even as corpses appropriated for teaching, she explains. “People of color have made contributions to medicine — dead or alive. This bibliography represents a history of racism that is published. . . . It doesn’t encompass all of it.”

But the MMS bibliography is a good place to start, Dr. Marable says. “This is not just for historians. It’s for everybody and anybody.”

NEJM launches “Recognizing Historical Injustices in Medicine and the Journal”

In December 2023, the New England Journal of Medicine announced a new series of articles, Recognizing Historical Injustices in Medicine and the Journal, which examines biases and injustices that NEJM has helped to perpetuate over its history, in the hope that reckoning with its past will help NEJM prevent harm in the future. Read the introductory editorial and the full collection to date.

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