Diagnosing the Relationship Between Slavery and Medicine
The stethoscope has become a key symbol of one of the most well-respected professions in contemporary society: medicine. A critical and instantly recognizable diagnostic tool, the stethoscope represents care and healing. This blog post will explore its development as well as the broader context of diagnostic tools and the connections between slavery and medicine, including experimentation and racial difference. Medicine and slavery have a complicated relationship because controversial medical theories supported slavery while important medical developments emerged from slavery. Framing my research around the stethoscope and the medical community in Chatham reveals the importance of medicine in slavery and resistance and the fundamental politicized role of the doctor in ideas of racial uplift and community building.
The stethoscope pictured above belonged to Dr. McAlpine, a family doctor in Dresden who practiced in the first half of the 20th century.[i] On loan from the Chatham-Kent Museum, this artifact is displayed at the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society to represent Chatham’s vibrant African-Canadian medical community and to draw attention to the importance of medicine in free black communities. The stethoscope was invented by French doctor Rene Laennec in 1816. Presented with a patient suffering from cardiac problems and conscious of the limits of placing one’s head to the chest to listen to the heart, Laennec relied on a “well-known acoustic phenomenon” and rolled a stack of paper into a tube, thereby using ‘mediate auscultation.’[ii] Material construction then progressed to a baton made of wood.[iii] The binaural stethoscope, like McAlpine’s, was crafted by Arthur Leared and commercialized by George Carmann in 1852.[iv]
While the image of the stethoscope conjures up many ideas about medicine, narrowing in on its function as a diagnostic tool provides important comparisons to another such tool with explicit connections to slavery: the speculum. Studying the speculum raises issues of bioethics, notably because the tool was used in experimentations on slaves. It is also interesting given the importance of reproduction in supporting the institution of slavery.
The speculum was invented by the ‘Father of Gynaecology’, James Marion Sims.[v] On the one hand, his legacy in the development of healthcare for women is celebrated as his invention is widely used today, while on the other hand, his controversial methods are critiqued. Resultingly, his experiments on his slaves Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy deserve attention in discussions of his merits.[vi] An interesting contradiction in Sims’ work is that he had slave nurses working for him, performing intellectually challenging tasks while operating in a framework that viewed them as biologically inferior.[vii]
Medical experimentation on slaves has been somewhat overlooked due to limited records. However, the records demonstrate that experimentation did occur, particularly when it enabled slaves to return to labour.[viii] New Orleans served as a hub for medical experimentation on slaves.[ix] The medical context for this experimentation was a mix of professionalized medical care with “fads and home cures.”[x] As slaves were treated like property, health concerns were driven by economic incentives. In fact, the most frequent subject of lawsuits in the antebellum period that appeared before the Supreme Court of Louisiana concerned slave sickness and disease.[xi] Antebellum medicine was heroic and the slave owner was the client.[xii] Despite lacking much control over their bodies, enslaved women took control of the healing of their souls, passing down wisdom and recipes.[xiii] Resistance and agency enabled some reclaiming of self-care which remained influential into freedom.[xiv]
Another key aspect of the relationship between American slavery and medicine is scientific racism. Biological difference was advocated in the medical profession and served to support racial slavery, although not all physicians agreed. Samuel Cartwright’s work in the 1840s and 1850s and his publication of The Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race advocated for racial difference.[xv] These ideas included racial inferiority, but also that illnesses differed according to race and should therefore be treated using unique guidelines based on perceived susceptibility and immunity. For example, an oft-repeated idea was that slaves were resistant to malaria.[xvi] Medical school hospitals emphasizing teaching and experimentation were also established. Slaves were often subjected to treatment in these institutions, lacking the agency to choose to be treated at a private institution.[xvii] The advancements in medicine therefore also have a complicated legacy with the institution of slavery. The founding of the American Medical Association in 1847 gave rise to a code of ethics, addressing experimentation.[xviii]
While medical advances were influenced by these faulty viewpoints, the context of abolition was also important for the medical profession. It is well-established that the Civil War, like other major wars, played an important role in the advancement of medicine, particularly for the emergence of modern medical practice through institutionalization. For example, Circular No. 2, issued by the Union Surgeon General in 1862, instructed physicians to collect and study specimen.[xix] In addition, guidelines for hospitals and case reports were established.[xx] Increased specialization of the medical fields became a practical solution.[xxi] Overall, 12,000 doctors served during the war, and innovations were made in surgery, ambulances, and pharmaceuticals.[xxii]
Given the complicated nature of the relationship between slavery and medicine, as well as the important developments that emerged, the role of African-Canadian and American doctors in the 19th century becomes more pertinent. Returning the focus to Chatham, the vibrant medical community based out of Southwestern Ontario gave rise to many firsts and illustrates the political role of doctors in transatlantic activism and freedom.
A discussion of six key doctors with connections to Chatham reveals the importance of Chatham in the anti-slavery and Reconstruction movements, as well as the politicized role that doctors took on, both by the nature of their profession and their additional involvement. Thomas Joiner White was active in a Vigilance Committee and Legal Rights Association and received his medical education in the United States. Amos Aray engaged in public discourse and was educated in and practiced in the United States.[xxiii] Samuel Watson was also educated in the United States and became a city councillor in Detroit after practicing medicine.[xxiv] Martin Delany attended Harvard Medical School and went on to publish a weekly abolitionist paper.[xxv] He advocated for the right of African-American soldiers to enlist, giving speeches in Europe, and becoming a recruiter.[xxvi] Anderson Ruffin Abbott became the first African-Canadian to graduate from a Canadian medical school – the University of Toronto in 1857.[xxvii] He is well-known due to his service at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington DC during the Civil War.[xxviii] Similarly to Delany, he championed the enlistment of black soldiers, detailing their great conduct in his writings.[xxix] In fact, he attended a Levee at the White House and writes about his striking experience, thinking it was the “first time in the history of the U.S. when a colored man had appeared at one of these” and that “we had broken the ice.”[xxx] He later returned to practice in Chatham and Toronto.[xxxi] Sophia Jones grew up in an “activist family” before attending medical school at the University of Michigan, having been denied Canadian admission.[xxxii] She graduated in 1885 and practiced in California.[xxxiii] Her story reveals the fluid border for women following opportunities, as well as the commitment to ideas of racial uplift.[xxxiv] The very act of assuming such a well-regarded and highly-educated role is an important statement, but as the lives of these doctors demonstrate, the intellectual currents ran deeper than the practice of medicine.
The educational experiences of these physicians highlight the connections in the Great Lakes Region and the relevance of our class’ community partnerships as several of the doctors either attended or had a family member attend Oberlin College. In addition, they reveal some limits to the narratives of Canada as the promised land because the United States offered greater and more inclusive educational opportunities. However, there were limits to the American system as well since the first African-American to receive a medical degree, James McCune Smith, matriculated at the University of Glasgow in 1837.[xxxv] He did so in part through the grassroots activism of the Glasgow Emancipation Society and the London Agency Anti-Slavery Society, revealing the transatlantic connections to support education.[xxxvi] Connected to above discussions of the role of medicine in supporting slavery, Smith used his platform to refute phrenology and gathered health statistics to refute racist arguments.[xxxvii]
These doctors provide insight into the dual nature of free black communities, both as political acts of resistance and redefinition and as thriving towns and neighborhoods. Aside from the politicized role of the doctors affiliated with Chatham, they were also necessary to the health of the community, both metaphorically and literally. Advertisements from local newspapers present the services of the doctors. Delany was said to focus on “chronic diseases and the diseases of women and children, in particular,” citing a reference in Baltimore.[xxxviii] Aray was particularly optimistic, “[proposing] not only to Treat, but to Cure Diseases.”[xxxix] Mutual support associations provided medical care during Reconstruction, illustrating the political and practical nature of these associations.[xl] The stethoscope represents this vibrant and persistent community.
From the Chatham stethoscope, to the function of diagnostic tools, to the complicated connections between slavery and medicine, to the achievements of Chatham’s medical community, this blog post has centred around the politicized and practical role of the African-Canadian and American doctor. The unique qualities of medical artifacts as usable objects meant to be sanitized, discarded, and replaced highlights the representative power of a seemingly banal object like the stethoscope in a community museum. Through comparisons, context, and specificity, this research has aimed to auscultate the inner complexities of anti-slavery movements.
Abbott, Anderson Ruffin. Civil War. Toronto Public Library. From Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. Manuscript. Nd. Chatham, Ontario.
Abbott, Anderson Ruffin. Manuscript. In Binder. From Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. Nd. Chatham, Ontario
Abbott, Anderson Ruffin. The Levee. Toronto Public Library. From Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. Manuscript. Nd. Chatham, Ontario.
Early Black Doctors Advertisements. “Aray.” Binder. 7 March 1856. Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. Chatham, Ontario.
Early Black Doctors Advertisements. “Delany.” Binder. 22 February 1856. Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. Chatham, Ontario.
Laennec, Rene. “On Mediate Auscultation.” Stethoscope Folder. UWO Medical Archives. London, ON.
Jones, Sophia. University of Michigan Alumni Contact Card. 1889. From Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. Chatham, Ontario.
Bankole, Katherine Kemi. Slavery and Medicine: Enslavement and Medical Practices in Antebellum Louisiana. New York: Garland Publishers, 1998.
Burggraaf, Lydia. ‘Information on Item #991.21.53. Email Reply, 18 December 2018.
Butts, Heather. African American Medicine in Washington DC: Healing the Capital During the Civil War Era. Charleston: The History Press, 2014.
Chatham-Kent Physician Tribute. 2008. http://ckphysiciantribute.ca.
Cheng, Tsung O. “How Laennec Invented the Stethoscope.” International Journal of Cardiology 118, no. 3 (2007): 281-285.
De Costa, Caroline M. “James Marion Sims: Some Speculations and a New Position.” Medical History 178 (2003): 660-663.
Devine, Shauna. Producing Knowledge: Civil War Bodies and the Development of Scientific Medicine in Nineteenth Century America. PhD Thesis. University of Western Ontario. 2010.
Favssoil, Abdallah. “Rene Laennec (1781-1826) and the Invention of the Stethoscope.” The American Journal of Cardiology 104, no. 5 (2009): 743-744.
Harbison, J. “The Old Guessing Tube: 200 Years of the Stethoscope.” QJM: An International Journal of Medicine 110, no. 1 (2017): 9-10.
Long, Gretchen. Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation. Chapel Hill: The University North Carolina Press, 2012.
Morgan, Thomas M. “The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), First Black American to Hold A Medical Degree.” Journal of the National Medical Association 95, no. 7 (2003): 603-614.
Owens, Deirdre Cooper. Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017.
Reid-Maroney, Nina. “African Canadian Women and New World Diaspora, circa 1865.” Canadian Woman Studies 23, no. 2 (2004): 92-96.
Savitt, Todd Lee. Medicine and Slavery: The Diseases and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.
Schwartz, Marie Jenkins. Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Thompson, Helen. “Six Ways the Civil War Changed American Medicine.” Smithsonian Magazine. 17 June 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/six-ways-civil-war-changed-american-medicine-180955626/.
[i] Lydia Burggraaf, ‘Information on Item #991.21.53, Email Reply, 18 December 2018.
[ii] Rene Laennec, “On Mediate Auscultation,” Stethoscope Folder, UWO Medical Archives, London, ON. ; Abdallah Favssoil, “Rene Laennec (1781-1826) and the Invention of the Stethoscope,” The American Journal of Cardiology 104, no. 5 (2009): 744.
[iii] Tsung O. Cheng, “How Laennec Invented the Stethoscope,” International Journal of Cardiology 118, no. 3 (2007): 284.
[iv] J. Harbison, “The Old Guessing Tube: 200 Years of the Stethoscope,” QJM: An International Journal of Medicine 110, no. 1 (2017): 9.
[v] Caroline M. De Costa, “James Marion Sims: Some Speculations and a New Position,” Medical History 178 (2003): 660.
[vi] Ibid., 661.
[vii] Deirdre Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017): 2.
[viii] Katherine Kemi. Bankole, Slavery and Medicine: Enslavement and Medical Practices in Antebellum Louisiana (New York: Garland Publishers, 1998): 99.
[ix] Ibid., 100.
[x] Gretchen Long, Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: The University North Carolina Press, 2012): 14.
[xi] Bankole, Slavery and Medicine, 49.
[xii] Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006): 34.
[xiii] Owens, Medical Bondage, 50.
[xiv] Long, Doctoring Freedom, 11.
[xv] Todd Lee Savitt, Medicine and Slavery: The Diseases and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978): 10.
[xvi] Ibid., 18.
[xvii] Ibid., 287.
[xviii] Owens, Medical Bondage, 47.
[xix] Shauna Devine, Producing Knowledge: Civil War Bodies and the Development of Scientific Medicine in Nineteenth Century America, PhD Thesis (University of Western Ontario, 2010): 32.
[xxi] Ibid., 167.
[xxii] Helen Thompson, “Six Ways the Civil War Changed American Medicine,” Smithsonian Magazine 17 June 2015.
[xxiii] Chatham-Kent Physician Tribute, 2008.
[xxvi] Heather Butts, African American Medicine in Washington DC: Healing the Capital During the Civil War Era. (Charleston: The History Press, 2014): 95.
[xxvii] Chatham-Kent Physician Tribute, 2008.
[xxviii] Butts, African American Medicine, 92.
[xxix] Anderson Ruffin Abbott, Civil War, Toronto Public Library, from Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society (Chatham, Ontario): 13.
[xxx] Anderson Ruffin Abbott, The Levee, Toronto Public Library, from Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. (Chatham, Ontario): 2-3.
[xxxi] Anderson Ruffin Abbott, Manuscript, from Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society (Chatham, Ontario).
[xxxii] Nina Reid-Maroney, “African Canadian Women and New World Diaspora, circa 1865,” Canadian Woman Studies 23, no. 2 (2004): 93.
[xxxiii] Sophia Jones, University of Michigan Alumni Contact Card, 1889, from Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society (Chatham, Ontario).
[xxxiv] Reid-Maroney, “African Canadian Women,” 92-94.
[xxxv] Thomas M. Morgan, “The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), First Black American to Hold A Medical Degree,” Journal of the National Medical Association 95, no. 7 (2003): 603.
[xxxvi] Ibid., 606-08.
[xxxvii] Ibid., 612.
[xxxviii] Early Black Doctors Advertisements, “Delany.” Binder, 22 February 1856. Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society (Chatham, Ontario).
[xxxix] Early Black Doctors Advertisements, “Aray,” Binder, 7 March 1856, Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. (Chatham, Ontario).
[xl] Long, Doctoring Freedom, 92.