The Scary Truth of Medical Institutions


When I saw Medicine and Racism on my schedule I had absolutely no idea how those two topics had anything in common. How did medicine and racism have anything to do with each other? Then, I was introduced to “Medical Apartheid” and “Fortunes Bones” and my whole outlook changed. “Medical Apartheid”, by Harriet A. Washington shows how abusive the medical field was during the time that was portrayed in the text “Fortune’s Bones,” by Marilyn Nelson told the story of the life of Fortune and what happened to him after he died.

Reading “Medical Apartheid” made me realize how lucky I am to be able to go to the doctors office or hospital and know that I will be given treatments that will help me get healthy again.During the time period of “Fortune’s Bones,” many African Americans feared anything that had to do with the medical field. I feel privileged because I can trust that I will get the best treatment, but African Americans knew they would be test subjects when they went to “receive treatments.”  African Americans were not as fortunate when it came to being treated in the medical field. More often than not, African Americans were used to experiment with new and different medicines, even though it wouldn’t help them and wasn’t the right treatment. In Medical Apartheid, Washington stated, “Dangerous, involuntary, and nontherapeutic experimentatiom upon African Americans has been practiced widely and documented extensively at least since the eighteenth century(Washington,7).” Also, medical researchers believed that African Americans did not have to give consent in order to experiment on them. At the time, most African Americans were enslaved people that did not have a say in what happened in their life. “These subjects were given experimental vaccines known to have highly lethality, were enrolled in experiments without their consent or knowledge…(Washington, 6)” When I read this quote and read about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in “Medical Apartheid,” I wanted to know more. In 1932, the Public Health Service worked with the Tuskegee Institute for a study to record the natural history of syphilis to possibly find a treatment for African Americans. The study originally called for 600 black men, 399 did have syphilis, but the other 201 did not have the disease. The patients did not have the benefit of consent, and therefore did not know what was being put into their bodies. The men were told they were being treated for syphilis but in reality, they were never given the right treatment for the disease. The men had been misled and had not been informed of the studies real purpose. In 1947, penicillin was discovered as the treatment to help syphilis and even then, the men were not given penicillin. The last participant of the Tuskegee Study died in January of 2009 and there is currently 12 offspring receiving medical health benefits. https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm

 African Americans went to the hospital thinking they were being treated and nursed back to health but in reality they were being used as experiments that the doctors knew they probably would not survive. The people that “owned” them believed that they could give consent for them at hospitals. After reading “Medical Apartheid”, I learned that if an enslaved person was hurt or old or basically not performing to their best ability, the owner would sent them to the hospital and if they survived and got better, they would be sent back to the owner to continue working. If the enslaved person did not make it, the hospital would either keep them for experimentation, to autopsy tables, or even medical universities. “If a master sent a sick, elderly, or otherwise-unproductive slave to the hospital, he usually gave the institution caring for and boarding the slave carte blanche for his treatment-and for his disposal(Washington, 126).” What this means is once the “Master” sends an enslaved person to the hospital, that person is not his responsibility any longer. It’s very frightening to know that at a point in time people had to worry that once a family member or friend dies they may not remain in peace. It was very common in the 19th century for African Americans to be stolen in the grave and sold to medical universities to be used in human anatomy classes and for experiments. Reading “Medical Apartheid” opened my eyes to how cruel the medical world treated African Americans and shows why so many could be hesitent or scared to go to hospitals today.

Though Medical Apartheid is not the only book that made me realize what medicine and racism had to do with each other. Fortune’s Bones, by Marilyn Nelson also shows how cruel African Americans were treated in the medical world. African Americans were not only tortured while they were alive, but after they pass away too. In Fortune’s Bones, an African American Man was used for human anatomy purposes after death. This was not uncommon with African Americans after they passed away. They could be sold to Medical Universities and used for research. One quote that stuck out to me in Fortune’s Bones was, “ In profound and awful intimacy, I enter Fortune, and he enters me(” When I read this quote  I realized that as this man entered Fortune’s body and prodded at his bones, Fortune’s life entered this man. This man was getting information about Fortune’s life and how difficult it was and getting information about Fortune’s bones and body. While looking at Fortune’s body, “They found that his lower back had been broken, then healed at sometime during his life. His shoulders, hands, and feet had all been injured(Nelson, 18).” This suggests that Fortune’s life had been full of continuous hard labor. Not only did he have a difficult life while he was alive but even when he’s dead he is still being tortured and abused. Over the years, Fortune’s body was passed down through the Porter family and used for human anatomy. As the years went on, someone changed Fortune’s name to Larry. Fortune’s identity was taken away from him as well as the life he lived. Children played with “Larry” like he wasn’t an actual human being and he was some sort of toy. Fortune was soon forgotten as “Larry” was being shown off at the Mattatuck Museum. “Larry” was on display at the Museum and new stories were made up about him, Fortune’s legacy was soon changed and his whole life was left behind. I do not have to live with knowing that when I die I could be stolen from the grave, or not even make it to a cemetery and be sold to Medical Universities to be poked and prodded in human anatomy classes. Fortune’s Bones made me realize how frightening it was for African Americans even after they passed away. They had such a hard life while they were alive, they should be able to rest in peace.

Before taking this class, I never knew how bad the medical field was for African Americans and how scary it was to go to hospitals. After only a few weeks in this course I have already widened my knowledge on this topic and am interested in learning more about such a hard hitting topic that most people probably didn’t know existed in our history.

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