The Untold Legacy of Medicine

Dan Bast, Delaney Carnahan, Samuel Comstock, Taylor Kerr, Jose Romero, Bryanna Spaulding

Through the works of Harriet A. Washington, Marilyn Nelson, and Toni Morrison readers can witness the influence of racism that has created disparities in medical care, highlighted by the inhumane medical treatment of those suffering from racial injustice among society. It is evident that Black Americans have suffered improper and unfair treatment when compared to White Americans. When we read Fortune’s Bones, we can see that Marilyn Nelson emphasizes the idea that being born a slave also enslaves possibilities and expectations of freedom, shown in institutions that perform medical experiments on enslaved people. This highlights the severe mistreatment and dehumanization of Black Americans that altered and limited the basic essential parts of life that are still seen in today’s demographic. “Fortune was born; he died”- the simplicity of life summarized in a simple sentence with no context to what Fortune did. It’s almost as though Fortune had no reason to be alive, a shadow of a man whose body was merely property and his soul only being released in death. At the time of his death, his body portrayed his life of servitude, and he was stripped of his identity by Porter when he was simply renamed “Larry.” Fortune’s life was defined by his work, and in his death, his body was nonconsensually used for medical research, further dehumanizing him. He was no longer an individual person, he served for Dr. Porter and he was not recognized as a man with his own life for years after his death. Fortune represents one of many instances where the life of a black individual is viewed as insignificant. 

In literature dealing with this subject matter, we witness corruption in the medical industry. These works emphasize the toll this corruption had and continues to have on African Americans and other black people. Whether it be a lack of consent or belligerent plans made by medical professionals without fear of repercussions. “His bones say only that he served and died, that he was useful, even into death, stripped of his name, his story, and his flesh” (Nelson 13). Nelson conveys to the readers in this quote that Fortune was not seen as a human being but rather as a tool that could be used when convenient. He was viewed not as an individual person with his own thoughts and ideas, he was seen as a mechanism for physical labor. Fortune’s bones are the framework for basic human autonomy and functioning in society; in this instance, the bones of Fortune are no longer individually owned, but rather owned and used by the owners bidding beyond free will. When Nelson speaks of Fortune being stripped of his story this can be connected to the concept of legacy. His individuality was not respected during his life and his body was used and continued to be disrespected in death. With that being said, the inhumane treatment and corruption on Fortune’s bones ultimately contaminates the legacy of those who wish to bring their stories of hardship and racial disparity, to be known. A loss of individuality is an opportunity lost to obtain a legacy. By reading works like Fortune’s Bones, it highlights the mistreatment black people experienced within the medical field and allows this piece of the medical community’s legacy to come to light. Similarly in Home by Toni Morrison, the author writes about Cee, a young black woman, and details her loss of legacy in a different way. After Cee endures the intensity of her recovery, Miss Ethel informs her saying, “Your womb can never bear fruit” (Morrison 128).  This displays the true (non-consensual) sacrifice made by African Americans in terms of medical research. Cee was not aware of what was being done to her, and she never gave consent nor accepted her medical fate. Dr. Beauregard performed experiments that not only left her body in an almost unrecoverable state but also made a drastic life decision for her, that she can never bear children of her own. She not only was used for her body non consensually, but she was in such a poor state that she herself could barely survive on her own. In losing the opportunity to bear children her choice to continue her legacy through children was no longer available to her. Although Cee was not a slave to the extent that Fortune was, she still experienced that same loss of autonomy. When taking this job, she was not aware of the true nature of the position making it impossible for her to have consented to the repercussions that came along with it. 

Many influential characters in history can be tied to the mistreatment of minority groups which define the success of their accomplishments. When reflecting upon the medical examinations that have changed over the duration of time, Washington’s Medical Apartheid highlights the corrupt mistreatment of African Americans and almost compares them to animals upon examination. We’re able to truly see the faults and degradation in our medical systems in her writing. This comparison can be seen within the quote “Dr. W. Montaguene Cobb…vociferously opposed abusive experimentation with blacks, but he defended Sims. ‘To refer to Anarcha and the five vesicovaginal patients whom Sims treated with her, as human guinea pigs would be grossly unfair… one of the great humanitarian as well as scientific landmarks of American surgery” (Washington 68-69). While the nonconsensual and inhumane experiments performed on these African American individuals were in no way justified, they did contribute to further medical advancements and treatments that benefited patients in a whole new aspect. Even though this research was ultimately beneficial to the world of medicine and future patients, the experiments performed cannot be excused. This is evidence of the brutal dehumanization of African Americans and no matter the benefits, racial discrimination in the medical field is unacceptable. 

In order to commit to health equity, racism has to be acknowledged as an obstacle and while there is more progression, there is still an evident lack of reparations seen through the mistreatment of people of color. Through Geneseo’s DEI initiatives, the school works to inclusify the community while providing knowledge that is so wrongly excluded from most school curriculums. This course acknowledges those issues and pushes us to reflect on the tragedies and learn from them so we can move forward as scholars. Students in this course are also from different backgrounds which allows us to work collaboratively and provide different points of view on the stories we are reading. We believe these ideas are reflected in Marilyn Nelson’s words interpreting Fortune stating, “And I am humbled by ignorance, humbled by ignorance” (Nelson 19). Ignorance is a crutch utilized in order to ignore the reality of racism that still exists in our society today. The weight of our actions as a society is robbing those who deserve to be recognized for their sacrifices towards the advancement of medical research.  

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