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Harriet Washington (2006), Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to Present illustrates the history of medical experimentation with African Americans in the United States from antebellum period to present. From infants to adults, Washington (2006) details the encounters of African Americans and Western medical researchers and the scientific racism that resulted without informed consent. Medical Apartheid demonstrates how the pseudoscience of eugenics and social Darwinism was used to validate the health injustice towards African Americans. Experimental exploitation was based on the premise that blacks were hypersexual beings, 3/5 of a human being and unfit for adult responsibilities (Washington, 2006). This paper seeks to highlight a few racial experimental exploitations that took place from antebellum slavery to the era of bioterrorism and its implication for African Liberation.
The commodification of black bodies, in the realms of medicine, can be traced back to antebellum slavery and colonialism. The slave population was heavily concentrated in the South; in State like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Slave owners would hire or sell slaves to physicians when slaves were either extremely ill or old. Often times slave owners would accuse slaves of malingering, resulting in delayed or no treatment and by extension, the death of slaves and diminished profits. These untrained medical physicians practiced non-therapeutic medical experiments on slaves in unsanitary institutions called “slave hospitals”. Treatments involved the use of toxic substances, for instance caustic medicine, which resulted in addiction, death or elevated sickness. Slaves were often misdiagnosed; this was the root cause iatrophobia.
Race, during the eighteenth century was biologically constructed and whites had many theories about the origins of blacks; for instance, “Homo afer”, “Homo sapiens”, polygeny and monogeny. The stereotypical beliefs of blacks were that they were not intelligent-given the small size of their heads, they suffered from drapetomania – rendering them unable to function without white supervision, they were immune to pain, disease infested and hypersexual among other things. These beliefs served as rational for medical experiments. As chattels, slaves were powerless and virtually invisible and were medically abused or neglected since they were seen as subhuman. A slave’s physical and mental health were tied to sexual attractiveness and reproductive attributes and therefore influenced his/her value. Thus, the partnership between physicians and slave owners saw physicians capitalizing from “treating” blacks and slave owners capitalizing on blacks slaves in the form of profits. Therefore, from the onset, medical experiments promoted idea of white racial supremacy and many physicians were dependent on slavery economic security. One such physician was Dr. James Marion Sims.
One of the first egregious experiment Washington (2006) introduced to her readers was Dr. James Marion Sims experiment call vesicocaginal fistula. Sims performed many non-therapeutic experiments on slaves, including puncturing children’s parietal bone and shifting it into new positions, during the antebellum epoch, resulting in the death of many black bodies. He however gained recognition for Vesicocaginal fistula, a gynecological experiment on black women and girls. Vesicocaginal fistula is a complication which results from childbirth which leaves women with recurrent infections and pain. This condition affected both black and white women, however, Sims perfected the technique on black women, without the use of anesthesia, in order to treat white women with anesthesia. Sims was also of the belief that blacks felt no pain, however, he upon recognizing that they do, he eventually “addicted the slave women to morphine” to control their pain. After scores of operations over five years, Sims was celebrated as “father of American gynecology,” (Washington, p.66). Sims experimented on women peri and post-natally.
The experimentation and capitalization of black bodies were not just limited to laboratories. Black bodies were also commodified through public display. Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus from the Khoikhoi tribe in Cape Town, body parts can be found in jars and her skin on display in Paris Musee (Washington, 2006). Baartman was handed over, by her slave owner Peter Cesar, to British naval surgeon William Dunlop, who persuaded her to sail with him to London. “Baartman did not know she was about to enter an arena where she would become an object of unbridled medical curiosity and physical lust” (Washington, p.83). Baartman’s “oversized inner labia that hung down when she stood, and her large buttocks made her the object of fascination by the Europeans. Baartman was later solid to an animal trainer in Paris where she was forced into a cage and was made to behave like a wild beast. She was often times clothed in animal skin with props of spears and bones. (Washington, p. 83-84). The cause of Baartman’s death was unknown. George Cuvier, French zoologist and psychologist, dissected her body and concluded that she was a link between animals and humans. Thus, Baartman was used to help emphasize that Africans were an inferior race and oversexed. Ota Benga, the African Pygmy, “white negroes” and Africans with “quasi-scientific oddities” are other examples of black bodies that were used as displays.
Beyond the nineteenth century black bodies were seen as expendable. Black bodies were primarily “clinical material” for southern medical schools for the purposes of medical research, training and professional advancement. The size of the student population in medical schools were dependent on the availability of black cadavers for dissection. This sort of objectification of black bodies intensified competition among medical school for black cadavers and gave rise to grave robbing in African American cemeteries and trafficking of cadavers, which was illegal. The schools argued that the bodies were needed for autopsy in order to understand the process by which diseases ravaged the body and the actual cause of death (Washington, 2006). States, like New York eventually passed laws, “Bone Bill” and “Ghastly Act”, giving legal access to use the bodies of “poor blacks” for dissection. The bones from these bodies were used as displays. Presently in the United States, one has the option to volunteer his or her body for medical dissection and in some instance the medical schools humanize the process by providing burial or memorial. The law governs the distribution of bodies and body parts based on the intersectionality of ones socio-economic status, income, class and race (Washington, p.139).
The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, a symbol of racialized medical abuse and a major source of iatrophobia., begun in 1932 and lasted over three decades. In this experiment approximately 399 poor and illiterate African American sharecroppers were diagnosed with syphilis in Macon County, Alabama. The belief that the disease manifest differently in blacks than in whites sparked the interest of the U.S Public Health Services (PHS). The PHS scientists studied the natural progression of the disease in these men, however, they decided to withhold treatment from them; even when the cure, penicillin in 1947, became available. Subjects were given placebos. The PHS lied to the victims and the CDC convinced them that they were being treated for “bad blood” while they monitored the progress of the disease in its various stages until most subjects died. The bodies were then used for medical research. The PHS Scientist also prevented subjects from accessing treatment. A leak to the press, by Peter Buxton, resulted in the termination of the experiment. The surviving victims and their families got a out-of-court settlement in 1974. Interestingly, the United States government allowed the Tuskegee Experiment and development of scientific racism, and other racist experiments, to continue, despite the U.S chief prosecutor condemning genocidal acts of the Nazi physicians – “Nuremburg Doctors Trials” in 1946- against humanity.
The twentieth century marked the era of medical eugenics. Eugenicists sought to promote the refinement of the human race by “weeding out undesirable societal elements by discouraging or preventing the birth of children with “bad” genetic profiles” (Washington, p.191). They strongly promoted white racial supremacy and purity, particularly of the Aryan race. Persons who were poor, uneducated, black, feebleminded, had flattened nose and wiry black hair were considered ugly and as eugenic misfits by Anglo-Saxon standards (Washington, p.191). Both German physicians and U.S. nationals were interested in maintaining racial purity through eugenics and were thus disgusted by black-white mating. Eugenicists sought to control the “inferior” – Blacks and Hispanics – races through segregation, sterilization, birth control and abortion. Among the poor subjects who were unknowingly sterilized, through a common procedure known as “Mississippi appendectomy” was Fannie Lou Hammer. Hammer used this negative circumstance as a motivator to pave her path as a political leader for the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement as a means to redress injustice committed against her.
The Negro Project was established to address negative eugenics through black birth control clinics. Besides birth control pills, the clinics had other contraceptive technologies like condoms, diaphragms, IUDs, spermicidal jellies, etc. for free or sold at a very low cost. Many persons in the black community were not in favor of the birth control clinics as they felt it equated to “black genocide” and leaders like Marvin Davies, promoted reproduction within the black communities. However, many career-driven black women were consumers of these birth control technology as they wished to delay the responsibilities that came with motherhood. These birth control technologies, particularly the IUDs, later were proved to be harmful and destroyed sterility. Norplant/Depro-Provera shot was later introduced and tested on the to poor women of color, who experienced major side effects. Norplant was likely to lead to death in women with underlying diseases like hypertension. Washington (2006) also shared other instances where African Americans were used as guinea pigs to perfect new medical technologies; an example is the brain surgery performed on African American boys, as young as six, by a neurosurgeon from the University of Mississippi. The experiment sought to test whether violent behavior, with the use of fenfluramine, ran in the families and to identify the biological basis for such behavior. Washington (2006) also asserts that soldiers and prisoners were also forced into becoming subjects of experiments without therapeutic value to themselves; the federal government and private companies obliviously used blacks in large-scale experiments with radiation and biological weapons.
The rise of molecular medicine not only assists with deconstructing the pseudoscience that race is biologically constructed. but also assists scientists to identify distinctive genetic patterns. Human genomics can therefore assist scientists in finding cures for many illnesses specifically for African Americans. Gene Therapy holds promise for the deadly HIV/AIDS virus that has been plaquing the marginalized African American communities in the United States but black communities globally for decades. According to Washington (2006) blacks are resisting taking AZT because of fear and distrust by the U.S. PHS Tuskegee study. The virus has been increasing among the heterosexual black population and the government and medical institutions show no interest in educating the black community to repair the image of the AZT. A clinical trial however, proved that the AIDSVAX vaccine protected 2/3 of the African American subjects who used it. The State however decided to boycott the program because the treatment helped only the “minority” group. In spite of the fact that this same minority group, African Americans, constitute the majority of people with HIV/AIDS in the country (Washington, p.345)
The era of biowarfare and bioterrorism marks the shift in the experimental laboratory from the United States to Africa. The American apartheid distinctly showed the heights of racial separation. In the southern states Washington (2006) stated that “segregation meant inferior education, nearly nonexistent health care, and dilapidated housing that was infested by vermin, glazed with lead, and for blacks only” (Washington, p.359). The MK-Ultra experiment was a form of domestic act of bioterrorism on the blacks in the United States. It was a secret project, operated by the CIA, that aimed to develop biological and chemical weapons to spread infectious diseases on the Soviets during wartime. One such covert experiment was an attack in the black community of Carver Village. “Fort Detrick’s Army Chemical Corps laboratory bred more than four million mosquitoes per day and released them in hordes in Florida, including near Carver Village” (Washington, p.360), which increased the 1955 death and infection rates in the community. Despite the sketchy reputation of the Church of Scientology, their “ambitious investigative report into MK-Ultra” against black Floridians, gained the attention and respect of the media (Washington, p. 63-64). In 1973 the CIA under the direction of Dr. Sidney Gottlieb had to “sweep up the program’s paper trail” in wake of the heavy media scrutiny of the government’s unethical and illegal experimentations and testimonies from citizens from Carver Village who pinpointed them as the source for the spike in illnesses and death rates. The government denied the allegations and pled their innocence because they knew the evidence were destroyed.
Similarly, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was investigating activities of the apartheid South African government. Project Coast was a covert South African experiment headed by Dr. Wouter Basson whose main aim was to “build a large-scale anthrax production facility” with the assistance of American scientists (Washington, p.378). The project was also had a domestic racialized biological and chemical warfare (CBW) aspect which focused on perfecting “agents that would preferentially sabotage blacks’ fertility and devise a “silver bullet” biological weapon, designed to kill only black Africans” (Washington, p.378). This aspect of the project supervised by Dr. Daan Goosen used pathogens and vectors, like mosquitoes, to “seed epidemics” and developed sterility contraceptives for black South Africans (Washington, p.378). Project Coast also employed the use of toxic and chemical poison weapons, as anthrax vaccines and spores and strains of cholera, for political assassination. The program developed CBW that targeted ANC government and their supporters as well as populations living in black townships. Subsequent to the ending of the program by Nelson Mandela, Dr. Goosen tried to sell Project Coast’s research documents and weapons to the U.S Department of Defense and Bioport Corp., however they objected. This forced Dr. Goosen and other apartheid scientists to seek amnesty from TRC (Washington, p. 378-379). Dr. Basson, however, refused to confess and murder charges against him were dropped “despite the implicating confessions by his colleagues and a slew of eyewitnesses to genocide” (Washington, p. 379).
Fanon (2005) Colonial War and Mental Disorders uses a series of case studies to demonstrate how the effects pf violence are not just physical but also psychological. Similarly, in Medical Apartheid Washington (2006) illustrates many sources of psychological disturbances – therapeutic and non-therapeutic egregious experiments -led affected the mental health of black people. A common example is the notion within the black community is the notion that HIV/AIDS is a “gay disease” and heterosexuals is less likely to contract the disease, when the reality is that the disease is more pronounced in the black community among heterosexuals, especially women. The dehumanization of black bodies, which were deemed as expendable, repressed the minds of many African Americans and triggered the [pseudoscientific] belief that the black “race” and blackness equates to inferiority.
Fanon (2005) also states that total liberation concerns all sector of the personality. Therefore, a person cannot experience total freedom if his consciousness is still being colonized by white supremacy beliefs. Rodney (1973) echo this in How Europe underdeveloped Africa, when he states that “capitalism stands in the path of further social development”. Blacks, have suffered, mentally, physically and emotionally, and still continues to suffer in order to make capitalists achievement possible and Washington (2006) has demonstrated how capitalists commodified black bodies. Rodney (1973) further posits that in order for Africans to truly be free, each African has the responsibility to understand the system and work towards overthrowing it. Thus, a radical approach towards liberation is necessary to decolonize the minds of Africans. Black people need to be and “stay woke”, especially with modern racialized diseases like HIV/AIDS and other current affairs affecting the black community. Fanne Lou Hammer’s consciousness was decolonized upon her encounter with SNCC and as a result not only was her life transformed but she transformed the lives of others.
Cohen (2006) The Boundaries of Blackness examined how cross-cutting issues of class, gender and sexuality challenges accepted ideologies who belongs in the already marginalized black community. Although Cohen (2006) was specifically referring to the AIDS in the black community, this is applicable to various sections of Washington’s (2006) book. For instance, the conflict that arose, during the eugenics movement, among poor black women decision to take Norplant and other contraceptives vs procreating and increasing the black population. One way to radically transform the health care, and by extension mental health, is by promoting health at the grass roots level.
To conclude, the medical exploitation and abuse and subjectification of African Americans and Global Africans, from antebellum era to the era of bioterrorism and biowarfare, has left generational scars on Africans. Although, blacks have been physically emancipated from slavery centuries ago, they are yet to achieve totally liberation as their minds are still colonized. Mental emancipation can be achieved through a radical transformation.
- Washington, H. (2006). Medical Apartheid The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Paw Prints.
- Fanon, F. (2005). “Colonial War and Mental Disorders,” The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, New York.
- Cohen, C. J. (2006). The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the breakdown of black politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Rodney, W. (1973). How Europe underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-LOuverture.
 Stay woke – to keep informed of the thing going on around you, especially on occasions when the media is being heavily filtered
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