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Bad Medicine: Understanding the History of Racism and Exploitation in the American Medical Profession

Medicine is one of the fundamental pillars of modern society, but it is deeply rooted in the exploitation of Black people. The medical field has yielded incredible breakthroughs in curing disease and prolonging life. Yet, Black people have been disproportionately victims of the darker side of medical practices such as unethical testing and experiment. The medical history in the United States can read like a Wes Craven horror story.

We can date the exploitation of Black bodies in the name of medical innovation back to slavery in the United States. J. Marion Sims, the father of gynecology, developed a surgical technique for the repair of vesicovaginal fistula. Still, his experiments came at the expense of enslaved women. Historians and commentators have stated that Sims is a “prime example of progress in the medical profession made at the expense of a vulnerable population.” Sims engaged in experimental surgeries without anesthesia on women who could not consent due to their enslaved status.

After the 1808 federal ban on importing slaves, medical practitioners were fundamental in establishing “domestic breeding” of slaves to strengthen the booming slave trade market. They often helped slave owners breed slaves from “good stock” to be sold to buyers at auction. These physicians were complicit in removing enslaved children from their families, which traumatized the parents and children. Deidre Cooper Owens observed that the economic incentives were the driving force for the development of Gynecologic examinations and medical practice in America. Indeed, physicians were willing to engage in these experiments because they gained financial rewards and reaped the professional benefits of doing experiments without having to worry about slaves’ objections. 

Despite the end of slavery, medical exploitation continued long into the twentieth century. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis In the Negro Male was a 40-year experiment run by  Public Health officials. This experiment followed 600 rural Black males throughout their lives without informing some of these men that they had syphilis. Scientists pretended to provide these men with free medical care, but they often used placebos and ineffective treatment methods. Many of the men with syphilis unknowingly spread the disease because they were not made aware that they had been infected. The public health officials never gave the Black men drugs that could help them and convinced them not to get treated by other medical practitioners, so the Black men would not discover they had the disease. The experimentation and exploitation of Foundational Black Americans in the Tuskegee Studies gave black people little to no reason to trust the medical system.

In 1951, around the same time as the Tuskegee Study, a medical innovation due to the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks. Mrs. Lacks, a Foundational Black American woman, has been described as the “mother of modern-day medicine.” Her cancer cells are the source of the  HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line in medical history. Mrs. Lacks’ cells were used around the world in laboratories for experiments, including to create a polio vaccination. Yet, Lacks was an unwitting victim of medical exploitation. The cells from her tumor (removed during a cancer biopsy) were used without her knowledge. Lacks died without knowing that the unethical use of her cells helped revolutionize the healthcare industry. The family was not informed of the breakthrough until over two decades later, and they were not given adequate compensation. The Lacks family profit from giving speeches, running foundations, and working as paid consultants on movies about Mrs. Lacks life. However, those forms of compensation cannot make up for the fact that their family member was victim of an ethics breach in medicine.

Today, Black people continue to be the victim of exploitation in an unequal medical system. Black people are among the highest infection rates for COVID-19 across the United States due to a lack of adequate healthcare. Similarly, Black people’s average life expectancy is lower than that of white people in America partially because Black people do not have the same access to doctors. Black people are often forced to sign up for paid medical experiments due to poverty and lack of educational access. Indeed, as the world develops a COVID-19 vaccination, Black people will have to be aware of their history of being used as human lab experiments.

Undoubtedly, the medical industry and doctors helped the black community through healthcare initiatives in recent years. Medical centers have increased access to healthcare for Black communities. They have developed schemes to help with addiction and poverty. However, all Americans need to understand the harm that comes from racism in medicine.

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Dawaun Davis
Executive Director at The Commoner | + posts

Dawaun Davis is an activist and political writer from Baltimore, MD. Davis is a proud Foundational Black American, and he hopes to use his growing platform to help young Black people with their struggles.

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