Medical Apartheid: Bad Medicine

Merdis Hayes and Matthew Mcwhorther | 8/18/2010, 5 p.m.

Medical apartheid synopsis of the past

The infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study of African American men has been a qualified benchmark in the revelation of the unethical treatment and subjugation of men and women in so-called legitimate scientific research. Such unethical experimentation has a long, dark history going back to the 1700s. One example involves the art of training physicians. Medical schools have always required a constant supply of cadavers for an adequate understanding of anatomy, and the only legal source of cadavers, in the past, came from condemned convicts found guilty of heinous crimes such as homicide. Once executed, their bodies were used as medical school cadavers. However, this did not meet the demand, and as a result of shortages, African American graveyards were often robbed to provide specimens for instruction and training.
In December 1882, six African American bodies were taken from a graveyard in Philadelphia and their destination was Jefferson Medical school, according to the Philadelphia Press which broke the story.

No one will ever know how many Black Americans have suffered human experimentation. But the following African Americans in this article are just a few of those who have served medical science willing or unwillingly in what clinicians thought was a way to serve mankind without consideration of the individual.

The Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy and OB/GYN
During the Victorian era the process of examining women by physicians was a very difficult task. This was due to Victorian era customs that frowned on exposure of a female's body. This limited the knowledge of diseases of women in the United States, until African slaves were introduced. Since African slaves were not considered human, practitioners were allowed to probe and perform vaginal exams, without being concerned about humiliating the female patient. James Mariom Sims, M.D. performed research on African slaves during the 19th century. Sims felt using Black bodies to learn about White bodies was okay. His medical experiments on a Black female slave known as Anarcha suffering from vesicovaginal fistula (an abnormal opening between the bladder and uterus) allowed him to perform the procedure on White females, once it had been practiced and perfected on slaves.

This procedure was performed without anesthesia and in a makeshift, unsterile plantation slave hospital due to the belief that Africans were subhuman and anesthesia had no effect on them. A journal entry of Sims described the pain of a female slave, Lucy, as being extreme -"she was much prostrated, and I thought she was going to die."

Betsy, an African slave of Sims is portrayed in a painting awaiting a vaginal exam by a metroscope (primitive speculum). Sims once commented to colleagues, before opening a slave's vagina with a speculum, that he sees what no man has seen before.
Between 1846 and 1849, Sims used African slaves as guinea pigs in vaginal surgery, and he is credited with being the father of gynecology, inventing the speculum and other gynecological techniques.

Unlimited Black skin

During the early 1950s and up to the mid 1970s, it was very common to have non-therapeutic medical experiments taking place on African American prison inmates. These were conducted under the supervision of dermatologists and other researchers working in various fields. They observed the reaction of man's largest organ, human skin, and its reaction to chemical injections, and various types of hazardous exposure. During the 1950s and 1960s it was very common to see an African American male with symmetrical patches on his back resembling a checker board while sunbathing during the summer near the Delaware river. Those were the signs of a former inmate who had voluntarily or involuntarily been impregnated with experimental pharmaceuticals leaving permanent scarring.