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Lock, Stock, and History

How to Cure the Freedom Disease —- The Theories of Dr. Samuel Cartwright.

Dr. Samuel Cartwright was a famous physician in the early and mid 19th century with practices in Mississippi and Louisiana.  A student of Dr. Benjamin Rush, he was known for his work with yellow fever, cholera, and was once the personal surgeon to President Andrew Jackson.  However Dr. Cartwright’s legacy focuses on one aspect of his practice; slavery.  

During the mid 19th century Dr. Cartwright was considered the preeminent physician who specialized in treating slaves.  In 1851 he published an article called “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race” in the popular magazine De Bows Review.  In it he described a mental disease illness “Drapetomania”, or the compulsion to flee from servitude.  According to Dr. Cartwright this disease was especially common to the “negro race”, especially those who are treated too well.  His overall treatment for Drapetomania was to treat slave kindly, but not too kindly,

"If treated kindly, well fed and clothed, with fuel enough to keep a small fire burning all night—separated into families, each family having its own house—not permitted to run about at night to visit their neighbors, to receive visits or use intoxicating liquors, and not overworked or exposed too much to the weather, they are very easily governed—more so than any other people in the world."

However for slaves who still suffered from Drapetomania, Dr. Cartwright recommended the following prescription,

"Before the negroes run away, unless they are frightened or panic-struck, they become sulky and dissatisfied. The cause of this sulkiness and dissatisfaction should be inquired into and removed, or they are apt to run away or fall into the negro consumption. When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventive measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them."

Later in his practice Dr. Cartwright also recommended the removal of the big toes of any slave that continued to be disobedient, permanently preventing him or her from running.

As well as Drapetomania, Dr. Cartwright also described a condition he called “Dysaesthesia Aethiopica”.  According to Dr. Cartwright, Dysaethesia Aethiopica was an insensitivity of the skin “peculiar to negroes”.  This condition also disrupted a slave’s intellectual faculties and caused disobedience and “rascality”.  To treat Dysaethesia Aethiopica Dr. Cartwright recommended the following,

"The best means to stimulate the skin is, first, to have the patient well washed with warm water and soap; then, to anoint it all over in oil, and to slap the oil in with a broad leather strap; then to put the patient to some hard kind of work in the sunshine."

 Dr. Cartwright continued his practice until his death in 1862.  Today his theories have been easily debunked as pseudoscience and scientific racism.  It also serves as a reminder of the more shameful aspects of American history and social issues today.

To read a copy of Dr. Samuel Cartwright’s “Diseases and Pecularities of the Negro Race” click here.

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