The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on African Slaves by White Doctors

During the days of slavery, doctors looking for Human subject research always went for black slave bodies. They were the best options for two reasons, they were easily accessible and their lives were deemed worthless.

The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Enslaved Africans by White Doctors
Physicians needed to learn anatomy and slaves provided a supply of bodies

The history of transatlantic slavery is a deeply disturbing and tragic one, marked by centuries of brutality and injustice. One particularly disturbing aspect of this history is the way in which African slaves were often used as “guinea pigs” for medical experimentation by white doctors.

During the transatlantic slave trade, which began in the 16th century and lasted until the 19th century, millions of African men, women, and children were forcibly taken from their homes, bought from indigenous slave traders and shipped across the Atlantic to be sold as property in the Americas. The journey across the Atlantic, known as the Middle Passage, was notoriously brutal, with many slaves dying from overcrowding, malnutrition, and disease before they even reached their destinations.

Upon arriving in the Americas, these enslaved Africans were often subjected to further abuse and exploitation. They were forced to work long hours on plantations, mines, and other labor-intensive industries, and were frequently subjected to physical punishment and abuse at the hands of their owners. In addition to this physical abuse, white doctors, many of whom were slave owners themselves, saw their African slaves as convenient subjects for their medical experimentation without their consent. They believed that Africans were less susceptible to pain than whites and that they could endure experimental treatments without suffering the same adverse effects.

Historians James Breeden and Todd Savitt have researched the exploitation of black slaves’ bodies for medical education and research in the US, with a focus on Virginia. They found that white physicians easily targeted black slaves as human commodities, transforming them into medical resources for testing and experimentation.

According to them, white doctors would often advertise in southern newspapers to pay for African slaves with chronic illnesses in order to experiment with new methods of treating various illnesses and medical conditions. These slaves were viewed as a convenient and dispensable pool of “guinea pigs” for physicians to experiment on, often without anesthesia and without their consent.

One notorious example of this practice was the physician J. Marion Sims, who is often referred to as the “father of modern gynecology.” Sims used enslaved African women to conduct surgical experiments without anesthesia. He performed numerous surgeries on these women, often leaving them with permanent injuries or infections. Sims continued his work even after anesthesia became widely available, believing that it was unnecessary for his African subjects.

Because of his experimentation of black women, Sims was eventually able to help elite white women who experienced vesicovaginal fistulas, but black women still did not have access to these treatments and many died from the same disease that the slave women helped to cure.

The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Enslaved Africans by White Doctors
Lucinda, a slave subjected to experimental surgery for an eye tumor

Another example is the case of the physician and slave owner William Aiken of Winnsboro, North Carolina, who reported an 1852 experiment on a slave named Lucinda, who suffered from a bony growth around her right eye. Aiken and other doctors disfigured her by boring holes in her head — without anesthesia — to remove the growth.

Another instance involves doctor Walter F. Jones, who detailed how he applied boiling water to the backs of unclothed slaves who had typhoid pneumonia every four hours in the hopes of “stimulating the capillaries” and possibly “curing” the illness.

Another documented medical procedure involved the removal of a “healthy-looking brain” from a slave who had suffered a head injury and eventually passed away. Another involved the removal of a tumor from a lymph node in an unnamed young girl, which resulted in an unsightly swelling around her head.

The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on African Slaves by White Doctors
Unknown enslaved sufferer’. Waring Historical Library, Charleston

These are just some examples of the countless instances in which African slaves were used as guinea pigs by white doctors. These practices were not limited to the United States but were widespread throughout the Western world. The legacy of these experiments is still being felt today, as many African Americans continue to distrust the medical establishment and are hesitant to participate in clinical trials and other medical research.

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of this history, and efforts have been made to acknowledge and redress the harm that was done. In 2017, the city of New York erected a statue honoring Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy, three of J. Marion Sims’ most famous subjects. The statue is the first public monument in the United States to honor enslaved African women, and it serves as a reminder of the terrible atrocities that were committed against them.


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