Race in Medicine

Racism—even in the medical profession—has existed foundationally in America since the first colonial settlements. As early as the 18th century the United States had struggled with racial discrimination and equity disparity. In the medical field discrimination can be a matter of life and death. Few accounts exist describing the trauma of the middle passage on enslaved Africans—but those that do are rife with images of what today we would call torture and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

African Americans and native people were often used as test subjects for medical learning. In the 1760s enslaved people in Jamaica were used to test nascent smallpox vaccines by British doctor John Quier, who also freely tested his vaccines on pregnant women and infants. In the 19th century, James Marion Sims, conducted gynecological experiments—without the use of then-available anesthesia—on enslaved women. 

From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service studied the progression of syphilis among poor African American men in rural Alabama. Known as the Tuskegee Experiment, the notorious study offered the men food, free medical care and burial insurance for participating in the study. Although the men were told they were receiving treatment for the disease they were not—even though by that time, the antibiotic penicillin was widely available and cheap cure. This enabled doctors to examine the effects of the disease until the patients died of their illness. 

Many medical professionals considered those of non-European ancestry to be medically inferior. Philadelphia founding father, Benjamin Rush, was one of the first medical professors in the 18th century and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. As Dean of the Medical School at the University of Pennsylvania he proclaimed that being black was a severe form of leprosy called “Negritude” and he believed that as medical practices improved the world would eventually be cured of black skin—regarded as a disease affecting the human species. 

Through the 18th century and into the 19th and 20th centuries it was even believed that certain ethnicities—most notably people of color as well as, later, Italians and Irish immigrants–had “inherent” genes for laziness or alcoholism. This mindset informed the study of Eugenics which first surfaced with an1896 Connecticut law which forbade those with epilepsy to legally marry. Eugenics studies aimed to improve the human gene pool by “excluding those thought to be inferior and including those thought to be superior.” The United States Eugenics programs of non-consensual sterilization of minorities, inmates, mentally ill and poor would go on to inspire Nazi Germany’s genocide of millions of Jews, Romani, Catholics and others. 

As immigrants fled Europe because of economic and religious hardships, they encountered medical discrimination as soon as they reached American shores. Germans, Irish and Italians were turned away from jobs and met adversity when being sorted at Ellis Island into healthy and quarantine groups. 

The coded language of alleged immigrant-born epidemics and “natively-bred” social inferiority continues to influence 21st century America’s immigration policies as one way of limiting certain populations’ entry into society at large. 

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