The Interconnections of Race and Medical Research

There are certain things in life that I have just accepted, as simple facts. The sky is blue, the world is round, and so on. However, as I grew older I started to question things. Well, why is the sky blue? Why is the world round? Some of these questions have simple answers, others do not. When I decided to take this course I was ready to not receive answers right away and ready to not have some questions answered. However, what I wasn’t ready for was just how much history of the medical field that I was completely unaware of. As we have been shown time and time again, when things go unnoticed they are allowed to continue until someone does notice and puts a stop to it. 

The epigraph for this course is “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice” -Dionne Brand. This got me thinking, throughout time many horrible things have happened, wars, violence, discrimination, and many more. However, while learning about this I always asked myself one simple question, why was this allowed to happen? Why didn’t someone put a stop to it or speak out against it? Why were these things allowed to continue? What I’ve come to realize is that people did say something, it just went unnoticed because other people didn’t want to notice. If it wasn’t affecting them and they are benefitting from that why bother? It has been shown time and time again that if people ignore wrongful behavior that allows it to continue. It becomes normalized, take what happened in Fortune’s Bone for example. Fortune was a man who was enslaved and died on the grounds of his enslaver in the late 1700s. Fortune’s enslaver was a doctor, Dr. Porter. Instead of burying Fortune’s body, Dr. Porter decided that he would preserve his skeleton to further the study of human anatomy. Dr. Porter didn’t just keep Fortune’s bone for himself and later bury him. As stated in Fortune’s Bones by Marilyn Nelson, “Four more generations of Porters became physicians, and the skeleton stayed in the family. Porter’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren used it to learn the names of the bones. This was their earliest medical training.” What Dr. Porter did to Fortune by today’s standards is not only incredibly disturbing but, illegal. However, not only were they no laws against it, it was also seen as acceptable and normal. Not only did Dr. Porter himself see no problem with using Fortune’s skeleton, but neither did his family and it just became normal. It is important to not only be able to take notice of harmful behavior but to also speak up about it because, as we’ve seen time and time again it will continue if not stopped. However, what happened to Fortune is not an isolated incident. So, it leaves me to wonder, who else has been harmed in the face of medical research? And was it only in the United States?

        The short answer is, many and not all of them were done in the United States. Unfortunately, the medical field is filled with research conducted by extremely harmful practices and as a result, a majority of them were done on African Americans. While some were done out of good faith most of the time the overall result did more harm than good. As shown in the book Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington, Washington tells many horrific stories of how African Americans and Africans were used at the expense of furthering medical research. Including one about Sarah Baartmen, who was a woman used in freak shows in London, who drew a large attraction due to her large buttocks. It fascinated many European men at the time, who had never seen those features on a woman before. Which made her a constant target for not just harassment but also sexual abuse. However it was not only in life that she was exploited, it was also in death. As stated in Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington, “Cuvier cast Baartman’s body in plaster in 1817, preserved her brain, vulva, and anus in glass jars, then stripped the flesh from her skeleton and hung it on display in Paris’s Musée de l’Homme.” Showing how little regard if any for her body or for her as a human being. Barrtman was just one of many women who were exploited and abused for medical research. As we continue during the course of this semester I would like to uncover, What sort of long-lasting effects did these sorts of practices have on the medical community? Also on the African American community?

We have been so far in class have been uncovering the past and how much the medical community has abused and mistreated African Americans. I would like to uncover how that plays a role in today’s world. How the long-term effects of racism in the medical field have affected African Americans or people of color in general. Through the books and articles, we will continue to read, how those long-term effects begin to play a role in modern times. How we will be able to make connections from the examples in Fortune’s Bones and Medical Aparthied to Today. Throughout the beginning of this course, we have seen countless examples of mistreatment and abuse done by doctors to non-consenting patients. We have also seen just how much race can play a factor in that mistreatment. I hope throughout and by the end of this course, I can begin to answer these questions.

In literature, I am constantly asking myself why. Why did this author do this? Why did they decide to put a comma here instead of there? What does it mean exactly? Why does it mean that? It is a subject full of whys, and in research, it is the same. Constantly asking questions. Always looking for more answers or new answers. However, a big part of asking and trying to answer these questions is that you do so without hurting other people or yourself. Many doctors over time disrespected that and have violated that rule. Throughout this course, I have seen countless examples of it and it has made me more aware of how much mistreatment has gone into medical research. At the expense of countless African Americans and their remains. I know by the end of this course I will not know everything about how much medicine and racism are interconnected. However, I know by the end of this course my understanding of just how interconnected they are will be increased greatly. As it already has just in the few weeks I have been a part of this course. I hope to come up with more questions and more answers along the way. Not only for my own understanding but in the hopes that maybe, I can begin to make others understand as well.

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