Susceptible Slaves and Panicked Paternalists: Reconceiving Intersections of Disease, Race, and Medicine in the Old South

AHA Session 145
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Palladian Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
Margaret Humphreys, Duke University
Deirdre B. Cooper Owens, University of Mississippi

Session Abstract

During the mid-nineteenth century, medical theories were infused with contemporary notions of race, class, ethnicity, and nativity.  More than a century and a half of ensuing historical and scientific inquiry into various epidemic diseases has verified some past beliefs and refuted others.  These theories, though often fallacious, shaped decisions and policies that had significant repercussions for the history of the Old South and its people.  Remaining ever cognizant of subsequent medical discoveries and modern epidemiological realities, scholars nevertheless ought to take seriously the antiquated and frequently mistaken views of eras past so as to benefit from what those ideas may reveal.  This panel seeks to do so through a reconsideration of antebellum racial medicine and controversial theories concerning the comparative susceptibilities of the region’s racially and ethnically diverse inhabitants.  Appealing to conference attendees interested in the history of medicine, disease, race, enslavement, and the South, these presentations will offer new interpretations and explore fresh methodological approaches to understanding these impactful topics and debates.

In the first paper, Christopher Willoughby will commence the session by asking the audience to not so hastily dismiss the racial medical theories of southern physician Samuel A. Cartwright (1793-1863).  Though frequently racist and peculiar, Cartwright’s extensive writings attracted a large readership of contemporary doctors and slaveowners who took genuine interest in his work on the prevention and treatment of common plantation diseases such as cholera and dysentery.  Cartwright, in other words, was and is an influential historical figure because the loss of slave labor and property from illness was just as concerning to the white master class as "epidemics" of absconding and theft.  In the next paper, Nicholas Bonneau demonstrates how the racial disease theories developed by Cartwright and other antebellum physicians were put into practice on countless southern plantations.  Through the examination of an 1833 cholera outbreak in and around Natchez, Mississippi, the repercussions of the widely perceived vulnerability of black slaves to the disease are evident as terrified plantation owners, medical authorities, and local officials scrambled to suppress both the news and documentation of the illness.  The cover-up not being fully successful, Bonneau combines dogged archival work with creative methodology to expose the devastation amongst area slaves.  Exploring similar themes as those of the previous papers but relocating the audience to the urban antebellum South, a final presentation from Michael Thompson considers cholera’s impact upon waterfront labor competition between enslaved black and white immigrant dock workers in Charleston, South Carolina.  To the benefit of the hundreds of Irishmen settling in the port during the 1850s and struggling against black bondsmen for employment, even the rumor of cholera’s deadly presence scattered fearful slaves and prompted masters to remove their valuable property from the city.  Given cholera’s disproportionate targeting of black inhabitants, Thompson argues, slaves continued to labor under the perceived stigma of innate racial susceptibility to the ever-threatening disease until the Civil War.

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