Electric shocks, brain surgery, amputations — these are just some of the medical experiments widely performed on American slaves in the mid-1800s, according to a new survey of medical journals published before the Civil War.
Previous work by historians had uncovered a handful of rogue physicians conducting medical experiments on slaves. But the new report, published in the latest issue of the journal Endeavour, suggests that a widespread network of medical colleges and doctors across the American South carried out and published slave experiments for decades.
“The physicians and colleges saw an opportunity in the institution of slavery to elevate themselves, and they took it,” historian Stephen Kenny of the University of Liverpool in the U.K., who wrote the report, told BuzzFeed News. “It was commonplace.”
Medical journals that no longer exist, such as the Baltimore Medical and Surgical Journal and the Western and Southern Medical Recorder, overflow with reports of surgical experiments to treat injuries, birth defects, and tumors, all pioneered on slaves. Doctors often performed the experiments “apparently without pain relief,” according to the study, in an era before anesthesia or sterile surgery.
The study details four surgical experiments in particular, dating from 1833 to 1858, that doctors performed on slaves. One, for example, involved severing “healthy looking brain” from a slave with a head injury, killing him. Another removed a tumor from an unnamed young girl’s lymph node, which likely made it swell grotesquely around her head.
The physician and slave owner William Aiken of Winnsboro, North Carolina, 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 chloroform, a gas that was used at the time for anesthesia — to remove the growth.
These cases were reported in respected medical periodicals read from Europe to the Western frontier.
“Medicine is an integral part of the story of slavery,” Todd Savitt, a medical historian at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, told BuzzFeed News.
Savitt first reported in the 1970s that medical schools in Virginia had trafficked in slaves prior to the Civil War. But historians had seen medical experiments on slaves as a practice isolated to a few physicians — until now.
“We are moving here toward a view of experiments on slaves as something more systematic,” Savitt said.