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The Peculiar Doctor Cartwright: Justifying Slavery Through Medical Quackery

As slavery grew and expanded, slave owners worked out new justifications for the institution. While many focused upon the various ways that slavery “improved” the lives of the African race, some fearlessly delved into the sciences.

The number of slaves escaping into the free states and Canada greatly increased as the Underground Railroad became more organized. This trend of the 1840s was noticed not only by the slave owners of the South, but by the intrepid eye of one Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, a physician from Louisiana

There must be, he believed, some good reason why the slaves would want to escape to freedom. It was a understood by many enslavers, as well as Dr. Cartwright, that the slaves were contented and happy. Why then would they risk everything to leave what was seen as the best life they could ever have?

Dr. Cartwright had the answer: they were clearly suffering from a disease that made them want to run away.

In this piece, we’ll meet Dr. Cartwright and wander around the depths of his misunderstanding.

Meeting Dr. Cartwright

Before achieving notoriety, Dr. Cartwright was a proponent of the idea that only doctors schooled in the South would be able to properly diagnose Southern deceases. This, he thought, was especially when it came to the illnesses believed to afflict only black Southerners.

It was the age before germ theory, when doctors believed that most of our illnesses were from miasma – bad air. The idea that micro-organisms were wiggling around in our bodies, infecting us and causing our diseases was nearly unspoken and absolutely foreign. It was into this era that Dr. Cartwright studied medicine.

Born in 1793, Dr. Cartwright was incredibly well educated, cutting his teeth under medical theorist and founding father Benjamin Rush. He also attended the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Along with the medical arts, he learned Greek, Hebrew, German and Latin.

Samuel A. Cartwright, surrealist physician.
Samuel A. Cartwright, surrealist physician.

Married at the age of thirty-two, Cartwright spent much of his time practicing medicine with little notice attached to his name. After visiting Europe in 1837, however, all of that began to change – he had found his life’s calling. 1Biographical information from James Denny Guillory, “The Pro-Slavery Arguments of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer, 1968), 209-211.

When in London, he began to understand that the England’s abolitionists were preparing to “stir up the Christians of the Northern states.” Here began his career as an author.

Cartwright had a theory that there was a conspiracy cooking in England. He believed that certain parties wished to “break up the cultivation of cotton in our Southern States”. This would enable England to cut out the middle man and get all of its cotton from India. He believed England’s abolitionists were just paid shills for the East India Company. 2Southern Quarterly Review, I (1842), 446. As cited in Ibid.

Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro

Along with inventing wild conspiracy theories, Dr. Cartwright also took it upon himself to invent two new diseases with which only people of African descent could be afflicted.

He, along with everyone else in the nation, noticed that more and more slaves were running away from their masters. He had already assumed that slavery was good for the slaves. Piling on, he concluded that the slaves, in fact, loved it on some subconscious level.

Founding father and mentor to Cartwright, Benjamin Rush.
Founding father and mentor to Cartwright, Benjamin Rush.

In 1851, Dr. Cartwright delivered a paper which ran in De Bow’s Review, one of the South’s most widely-read periodicals. “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro” began by concluding that the white race and African race had “anatomical and physiological differences.” These had to be recognized, he claimed “otherwise, their diseases cannot be understood.” 3Stephen A. Cartwright, “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro” The Industrial Resources, Etc.,of the Southern and Western States, Vol 2, J.D.B. De Bow, ed. (De Bow’s Review, 1852) 315. here.

These differences were more than simply skin color. Their dark skin, Cartwright believed, was certainly a symptom of something deeper. He believed that “the membranes, the muscles, the tendons, … all the fluids and secretions… even the negro’s brains and nerves, the chyle and all the humors, are tinctured with a shade of the pervading darkness.” 4Ibid.

Everything, it seems, was different. From the whiter, harder bones to the face, which was “thrown more upwards,” was apparent. Even the way the black race walked, which Cartwright described as “hopper-hipped,” was an indication that they were a very separate and incredibly debased race. He put forward that these traits had “rendered the people of Africa unable to take care of themselves.” 5Ibid., 316. There are many more differences noted by Cartwright, and it’s probably a good idea to read the entire piece yourself.

This, Cartwright held, was exactly “why they have always preferred, as more congenial to their nature, a government combining the legislative, judicial and executive powers in the same individual, in the person of a petty king, a chieftain, or master; why, in America, if let alone, they always prefer the same kind of government, which we call slavery, but which is actually an improvement on the government of their forefathers, as it gives them more tranquility and sensual enjoyment, expands the mind and improves the morals, by arousing them from that natural indolence so fatal to mental and moral progress.” 6Ibid.

As a Southern physician, Dr. Cartwright treated many slaves and certainly understood the diseases particular to them as well as any of his colleagues. Treating the diseases, however, was not enough for him. Cartwright concluded that the diseases most prevalent among the slaves – various fevers, skin diseases, and tuberculosis – were diseases that only those of the African race could catch. If he saw similar diseases in members of the white race, Cartwright simply waved them away. He ignored the similarities, focusing instead on any perceived differences he observed.

For instance, Cartwright insisted that what he called “negro consumption” was not anything like the consumption (tuberculosis) that afflicted white people. In this he was correct, but only because “negro consumption” was actually malaria – a disease quite unlike tuberculosis.

Drapetomania, or the Disease Causing Negroes to Run Away

Dr. Cartwright, as well as many others,  concluded that slavery was beneficial and even enjoyed by the slaves. But with the number of runaway slaves greatly increasing, Cartwright had two choices.

Early clip art of fugitive slave.
Early clip art of fugitive slave.

First, he could rationally look at his theory and conclude that black people ran away because they didn’t like slavery. Or, second, he could make up some crazy disease to explain it all away.

Of course, Cartwright chose the latter. He named this crazy disease Drapetomania, combining the Greek words for “runaway slave” and “mad or crazy.”

“The cause, in the most of cases,” Cartwright explained, “that induces the negro to run away from service, is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation….” 7Ibid., 322.

This is as deep as Cartwright probes when it comes to the actual cause of the disease. He did, however, have a cure, which was “clearly implied, though not directly expressed” in the Old Testament, which he believed taught the “true art of governing the negroes in such a manner that they cannot run away.” There, they were apparently told to become, as Cartwright put it, “the submissive knee-bender.”

The trick was, wrote Cartwright, to neither abuse nor treat as an equal the slave. In this way, “the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.” 8Ibid.

Perhaps the only "cure".
Perhaps the only “cure”.

From his acute observation, he noticed that there were two classes of slave owners who lost their slaves. The first “made themselves too familiar with them, treating them as equal, and making little or no distinction in regard to color.” The other class “treated them cruelly, denied them the common necessaries of life, neglected to protect them against the abuses of others, or frightened them by a blustering manner of approach, when about to punish them for misdemeanors.” 9Ibid., 323.

One of the earliest symptoms of this affliction was depression. “Before the negroes run away,” he wrote, “unless they are frightened or panic-struck, they become sulky and dissatisfied.”

If there was an obvious reason for their sulkiness, Cartwright advised how to treat it. On the other hand, if there seemed to be no true reason for it, if they were “sulky and dissatisfied without cause,” then he recommended “whipping them out of it, as a preventive measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.” 10Ibid.

Somehow or another, Cartwright could not see this as either abusive or manipulation, but relied upon the Biblical edicts which allowed slavery and gave instructions on how to treat your slaves. If all was done in accordance to God, he believed, the slave would indeed become “the submissive knee-bender.”

“They have only to be kept in that state and treated like children, with care, kindness, attention, and humanity, to prevent and cure them from running away.” 11Ibid.

Dysaesthesia Aethiopica, or Hebetude of Mind and Obtuse Sensibility of Body

Along with Drapetomania, Cartwright invented Dysaesthesia Aethiopica, which he also glossed as “rascality.” He admitted that this complaint appeared more among the free blacks than the slaves, but saw still thought it warranted a mention.

This rascality was, he insisted, not intentional, “but is mostly owing to the stupidness of mind and insensibility of the nerves induced by the disease.” The symptoms were many:

“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.”

Unsatisfied with merely the outward symptoms of the malady, Cartwright also insisted that this “disease” gave the black people “lesions of the body discoverable to the medical observer, which as always present and sufficient to account for the symptoms.”

With the obvious symptoms, including the open sores, Cartwright was mystified how no other physician before him could have missed this. He accounted for the oversight, explaining that “attention has not been sufficiently directed to the maladies of the negro race.”

His conclusion was that the “disease is the natural offspring of negro liberty–the liberty to be idle, to wallow in filth, and to indulge in improper food and drinks.”

Jim Crow-era depiction of "laziness" that would have done Cartwright proud.
Jim Crow-era depiction of “laziness” that would have done Cartwright proud.

But Dr. Cartwright was not quite finished. In his paper, he went on to remind the reader just how lazy the black people were. “When left to himself,” he wrote, “the negro indulges in his natural disposition to idleness and sloth, and does not take exercise enough to expand his lungs and to vitalize his blood…” This condition existed for a couple of reasons. First, he claimed that it was well established that the “negro… was under the same physiological laws as that of an infant child of the white race.” Not only that, but “the blood becomes so highly carbonized and deprived of oxygen, that it not only becomes unfit to stimulate the brain to energy, but unfit to stimulate the nerves of sensation distributed to the body.” 12Ibid., 324.

Of course, none of this made much sense, even then – which was why nobody else in the medical establishment had come up with these diseases. Still, this did not stop Cartwright from coming up with a cure.

Unlike the cure for Drapetomania, it did not involve all that much physical violence. He suggested stimulating the liver and kidneys so that the blood could be decarbonized. This could be accomplished by getting the slave to wash himself with soap and water, before applying an oil. The best method, according to Cartwright, for this application was “to slap the oil in with a broad leather strap; then to put the patient to some hard kind of work in the open air and sunshine, that will compel him to expand his lungs….” 13Ibid. For a much fuller understanding, it’s probably best to read his entire paper.

Conclusion and Forward

Following his description of Dysaesthesia, Dr. Cartwright scribbles on and on about various other topics. Page upon page about various varieties of afflictions and bits of wisdom, Biblical and otherwise. He returned to his East India conspiracy theory. This sent him wandering through the subjects of astronomy, the Declaration of Independence, the multitude of errors made by Northern physicians. Finally, he seemed to just peter out.

Cartwright launched into a rant about the Northern misunderstanding “that the negro is a white man, but, by some accident of climate or locality, painted black, requiring nothing but liberty and equality – social and political – to wash him white…”

He was certain, that if this could be “corrected at the dissecting table,” then all of medical science would finally look toward the South for its medical learning.

In the end, that is what Dr. Cartwright wanted most – for the South to be taken seriously in the medical field. That is why he invented two diseases (and misattributed a smattering of others) specific to Southern slaves. His medical philosophy fed into his white supremacist/pro-slavery biases. It also paved the way for his career of  the pseudo-science of physiological racial differences.

For the most part, Cartwright was successful in this. The Southern public largely accepted his conclusions as fact. People such as DeBow and even Jefferson Davis touted his findings. “He is my personal friend,” said Davis of him, “and as a physician he hold the first place in my estimation.” At the outbreak of war, Davis appointed Cartwright the Assistant Surgeon General. By that time, however, he was well past his prime. By 1863 and the fall of Vicksburg, Cartwright was dead. But his medical philosophy concerning the African race and their decedents, at least in spirit, lived on. 14Guillory, 226-227.

"Negroid sane criminals and Negroid civil insane, mosaic of metric differences"
“Negroid sane criminals and Negroid civil insane, mosaic of metric differences”

What’s more, in a very real way, Dr. Cartwright (and those in the 1850s pushing for the Southern medical philosophy of white supremacy) got what he wanted. Roughly thirty years after Cartwright bolstered his invented diseases by passing off racial stereotypes as science, eugenics was established as a serious field of study. While the discipline concerned itself with genetics of many varieties, it almost always established the white race as superior. 15Eugenics is a subject too far removed from the Civil War to cover here. If you’re interested in such a study, try Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era.

Cartwright’s pet diseases were never fully accepted. Even so, the imagined physiological differences between black and white were propagated by eugenicists using much of the same racial stereotypes passed off as “evidence”.

Books like Mongrel Virginians: The Win Tribe by A.H. Estabrook and I.E. McDougle explained “any white race subject to continued contact with the negro, ultimately becomes mongrelized.” 161923’s Mongrel Virginians is a fine place to start for an example of how racism was made “scientific” in the early twentieth century. These views, along with the entire premise of eugenics, became wide spread in the early twentieth century. The theory was supported by most major media outlets and even by Congress. It was taught in the classrooms, and ruled as truth in even the highest federal courts. 17For the legal end of things, try Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck.

And like Cartwright, the eugenicists involved in the racial sciences held firm to their untenable beliefs for a single reason: white supremacy.

Note: If you’d like more information about all of this, you should check out this series.

References   [ + ]

Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.