Running away from Drapetomania: Rethinking Samuel Cartwright and Racial Medicine in the Antebellum South

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 9:00 AM
Palladian Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
Christopher Willoughby, Tulane University
This presentation argues for the reconsideration of the influence of Dr. Samuel Cartwright and his theories of racial medicine in antebellum southern medical culture.  In the last 50 years, when historians have mentioned the work of Cartwright, they have focused on his more clearly politicized medical theories like drapetomania (the “disease” that made slaves run away) and rascality (the “disease” that caused slaves to commit petty offenses like livestock theft).  The tendency to look at these concepts in isolation from Cartwright’s other medical writing has created a narrative of Cartwright as merely a regional eccentric with little interest in professional medicine, or that Cartwright’s sole literary goal was to oppress and denigrate African Americans.

However, this presentation argues that Cartwright was more than simply a popular, racist quack.  Instead, Cartwright and his work were much more formative for southern concepts of race because of the cultural legitimacy he garnered as a true believer in both his racism toward black people and the new techniques emerging in antebellum scientific medicine.  This presentation will look closely at Cartwright’s writing on major plantation diseases like cholera and dysentery, closely analyzing the distinct treatments he prescribed to the enslaved.  Likewise, it will consider Cartwright’s use of statistics to claim racial susceptibility or immunity to certain ailments like pneumonia.

This reframing does not have the effect of legitimizing Cartwright’s work, but it seriously considers how he was perceived in the antebellum era.  It also will provide a context for discussing drapetomania as a part of a larger body of interlocking theories that bolster each other.  Instead of being purely on the periphery of antebellum medicine, Cartwright used the modern theories of pathological anatomy and statistical medicine as a way of re-enforcing narratives of benevolent white supremacy and framing slavery in terms of scientific progress.

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