Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright was a prominent physician and medical writer in New Orleans. He specialized in “mental alienation,” an expression that meant a break with reality or a schism in mind. Cartwright is most known and remembered for his theories of drapetomania—the belief that a disease caused slaves to run away. Also known as “Free Negro Insanity,” Cartwright defined “Drapetomania” as the madness of black slaves running away from their white captors.
He derived this term from the Greek words drapeto, meaning “runaway slave” and mania, meaning “mad” or “crazy.” Cartwright believed that blacks who rebelled did so because of mental instability. He thought with the proper medical advice and treatment, they could prevent the practice of slaves running away. By 1851, Cartwright became “Professor of Diseases of the Negro” at the University of Louisiana and was deemed an expert on black behavior.
Cartwright’s theories were readily accepted because the law had already begun to link radicalized slaves who were “disobedient” to mental illness. “Cartwright compared runaway slaves to run away cats who fled only in fits of enthusiasm from their owners, and then returned.” (Eberly, 2014) To put it into perspective the extent to which enslaved men and women were considered commodities, consider redhibition, “a civil law claim against the seller and/or manufacturer of a product in which the buyer demands a full refund or a reduction of the purchase price due to a hidden defect that prevents the product from performing the task for which it was purchased.” (US Legal) If a buyer could prove a slave was mentally ill and that the previous owner knew of this illness (his/her capacity to run away, rebel, e.g.), the buyer could get his money back.
Another disease from Cartwright was “Dysaesthesia Aethiopica,” which in short was a disease Cartwright and other “prominent,” physicians claimed caused laziness in slaves.
“From the careless movements of the individuals affected with the complaint, they are apt to do much mischief, which appears as if intentional, but is mostly owing to the stupidness of mind and insensibility of the nerves induced by the disease. Thus, they break, waste and destroy everything they handle,–abuse horses and cattle,–tear, burn or rend their own clothing, and, paying no attention to the rights of property, steal others, to replace what they have destroyed. They wander about at night, and keep in a half nodding sleep during the day. They slight their work,–cut up corn, cane, cotton or tobacco when hoeing it, as if for pure mischief. They raise disturbances with their overseers and fellow-servants without cause or motive, and seem to be insensible to pain when subjected to punishment.”
– “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race.”
From James Marion Sims, who experimented on black women’s bodies and without anesthesia (Washington, 2006, pp. 61) to Ota Benga and Saartjie Baartman, whose bodies were displayed like animals, the medical and scientific field has an extensive history of racism against African Americans. Consider that blacks were often wrongfully admitted to mental institutions. Studies conducted in 1973 in the Archives of General Psychiatry showed that African American patients were more likely to be diagnosed as schizophrenic than white patients. Consider too The Negro Project, led by Margaret Sanger of The American Birth Control Federation. It included the forced sterilization of impoverished African Americans.
Consider also the HeLa cell.
Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Oprah’s film adoption brought attention to the widespread illegal use of the HeLa cell line. The two scientists, Dr. Russell W. Brown and James H.M. Henderson made their mark by leading a team of researchers and staff at Tuskegee University in the mass production of the HeLa cells for the development of the polio vaccine. It was believed that blacks were immune to the virus which led to the disregard for the suffering of African Americans with the disease.
Speaking of Tuskegee, we cannot forget the Tuskegee Experiment or, more accurately, “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” Initiated by the United States, Public Health Service in connection with the Tuskegee Institute and the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital, six hundred men were given the Syphilis disease, without consent, and were left untreated. This “experiment” lasted as late as 1972. Long-term effects of untreated syphilis included issues with mental functions, memory loss, loss of vision, balance, and other symptoms.
Understanding mental illness and its role in the enslavement and oppression of blacks is essential because it offers a window into how slave-owners justified slavery to keep it going. Consider the story of the white overseer who used mental illness to explain away why he had killed an enslaved man named Samuel. (Willoughby, 2018). The overseer got word that Samuel had become unmanageable, that he was destroying cotton, and that even after being ordered to be whipped, Samuel said he would not be whipped. Both of Samuel’s acts—his destruction of the cotton crop, and his unwillingness to submit to whipping— represented symptoms for what Cartwright deemed “Dysaesthesia Aethiopica,” and thus the murder was justified.
Be sure to check out more Black History Fun Facts Here.
Ariela Gross, Double Character: Slavery & Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom (Princeton, 2000), 87
Willoughby, Christopher D. E. “Running Away from Drapetomania: Samuel A. Cartwright, Medicine, and Race in the Antebellum South.” Journal of Southern History, vol. 84 no. 3, 2018, p. 579-614. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/soh.2018.0164.
Disability and the African American Experience https://www.museumofdisability.org/disability-and-the-african-american-experience/
Redhibition. (n.d.) In US Legal, Redhibition Law and Legal Definition
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington
Development of the Polio Vaccine: A Historical Perspective of Tuskegee University’s Role in Mass Production and Distribution of HeLa Cells. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4458465/