Forgetting the Medical Practice of Good Faith

Nossoh Diarra, Jacob Clarke, Georgia VanDerwater, Rachel Dems, Philip Cai, Dineen Vogler

The story of Fortune’s Bones, written by Marilyn Nelson, begins with a man named Fortune,who was enslaved by an orthopedic surgeon known as Dr. Preserver Porter. Upon Fortune’s death, his skeleton was used for anatomical study by Dr. Porter and subsequent generations. The disturbing examination of his body is believed to contribute to the progression of medical science. Not only was Fortune taken advantage of, his wife (Dinah) was forced to clean the room where Fortune’s skeleton hung. Fortune’s skeleton was eventually donated to a museum by a descendant of Porter. Both Fortune’s real name and story were lost as the name “Larry” had been engraved on Fortune’s skull. Giving Fortune an imaginary name because it made it easier to accept the magnitude of suffering that he went through. Nelson also mentions that Fortune was an image of herself, enabling her to connect and empathize with the pain that Fortune had to endure. 

The practice of studying medicine has historically sought to minimize, and sometimes even justify the consequent harm brought to individuals who were promised protection. Medical professionals reimagine themselves and their subjects as small contributors to an inevitable and beneficent system (medicine and science as a whole), to ease the conflict of bringing harm to a patient. To complete this reimagining, professionals often forfeit their own agency, as well as that of the patient, to a more abstract demand for knowledge. Though the identity of the medical professional is maintained, the identity of the patient is often obscured, or destroyed to make this reimagining easier. In context, this means that while professionals will be happy to take credit for medical discoveries, the individuals who sacrificed their autonomy in a very visceral way will be carelessly or intentionally forgotten for sake of ease.

Dr. Porter did not see Fortune’s body as the end of a human life; he saw it as an opportunity. When Fortune died, Dr. Porter dissected him. He took Fortune’s body, which he had forced to endure strenuous labor and continued struggle, and he cut it open because he wanted to. Nelson writes from Dr. Porter’s point of view in Fortune’s Bones, as he describes the act of cutting Fortune open, saying his body “falls open like a bridal gossamer” (19). This intimate metaphor is extended, as Dr. Porter begins to dissect Fortune’s body, saying “I enter Fortune, and he enters me” (22). This image connotes an air of equality, mutuality and consent. However, in reality, Dr. Porter was using Fortune’s body as a prop, slicing him into pieces, ripping his organs out of his body, leaving his bones to hang in the room Fortune’s own wife cleans. So why would Nelson’s Dr. Porter use language that implies he and Fortune were equals in this endeavor? He does so for the same reason he constantly repeats the phrase “and I am humbled by my ignorance, humbled by my ignorance” (22): to convince himself that he is not solely responsible for his brutal actions against Fortune’s body in death. If Dr. Porter can convince himself Fortune’s dead body is a willing participant in his studies, if he can convince himself that he is too ignorant to see the cruelty in what he is doing, if he can convince himself that he is merely acting in the good name of science, then he does not need to accept the gravity of what he is doing. He goes so far as to imagine Fortune as the agent of the dissection, not himself, stating “Here with begins my dissection of the former body of my former slave, which served him who served me throughout his life, and now serves the advance of science” (17).

The idea of autonomy can also be applied to science. Choosing whether or not to accept their own autonomy has been a common theme in our readings about medical professionals. Doctors willingly take credit for their contributions to the growth of the medical field but deny any responsibility for inflicting harm on black people at their expense. Among Medical Apartheid and Fortune’s Bones, both medical Dr. Sims and Dr. Porter strived for success in their work without realizing the reality and ethicality of their work on black people. Known as the “father of modern gynecology”, Dr. James Marion Sims conducted several horrific experiments and procedures on a group of enslaved women. Doctors had to hold back these women while Dr. Sims made incisions, without providing anesthesia to numb the pain. 

The story of Joice Heth is also another example of the pain inflicted on a Black person at the hands of a powerful white man. P.T. Barnum, a famous American circus holder, had bought the possession of an enslaved woman named Joice Heth. After her death in 1836, Barnum ordered a public dissection to be performed to determine the cause of death and sold tickets for the public to view. Shockingly, 500 spectators showed up to this gruesome event as a form of entertainment and ensured that Barnum’s fame would rise (86-94). At the expense of Heth, P.T. Barnum used her to benefit himself and dehumanized her as an easier way to justify his cruel intentions. He made excuses to himself and to Heth that this torture would be worth it because Heth herself would become rich and famous. Unsurprisingly, Barnum was the one who reaped the befits of his own cruelty, and Heth died penniless and stripped of her dignity and autonomy. Similar to Joice Heth, Fortune was also dehumanized as it was easier to refer to him as “Larry.” By naming him with a generic name, it removes any personal or emotional connection to the body and almost takes away from the consequences of the procedures implemented by Dr. Porter. Both examples show that it was easier for the white person to take advantage of the enslaved Black person through their delusional imaginations to justify their horrible actions.

In their stories, Nelson and Morrison both discuss the scientifics about eugenics to showcase how doctors can manipulate their patients for their own benefits. Specifically, in the novel, “Fortune’s The Manumission Requiem Bones”, Nelson explains how Fortune’s body is used as a tool. Dr. Porter, a renowned surgeon, undergoes several procedures where he experiments on Fortune’s body for any scientific evidence about his life. However, diving deeper into this scene, we are able to see that no matter how much examination is done, it is Fortune’s voice and spirit that can not be owned. In this particular scene, Nelson writes, “I am not my body, I am not my bones” (27). Here, we clearly see that Fortune’s is stating that he is not his body. The use of this repetition is important as it highlights Fortune’s identity. Although Fortune’s body is physically there, he is mentally gone. Who is his and who people will remember him by will be forgotten. 

Similarly, in her novel, “Home” author Toni Morrison discusses another doctor named Dr. Beauregard, who performed sexual experiments on Cece’s body and left her traumatized. We see how disturbing one’s physical body can affect them. Connecting this back to the thesis, individuals who sacrifice their bodies for surgeons are capable of being hurt near the end because they end up losing the most important thing to them, their identity.

Understanding just how medical professionals relinquish their autonomy to the pursuit of knowledge as an act of imagination in order to justify cruelty, we can begin to question the larger and urgent implications to essential concepts like autonomy, care, and accountability.

One of the more disturbing components of this analytical framework is its wide applicability; the fallacy that imagines inflicting harm as justified if in service of larger systems isn’t by any means exclusive. While our analysis focuses on the justification of harm in medical contexts, you can trace this narrative through a plethora of situations where those in power imagine they have no choice but to seriously hurt someone for the sake of furthering some abstract and beneficent pursuit or institution. In doing so, those of authority can justify any violence to themselves as well as the public. Medical professionals such as J. Marion Sims, who built his medical understanding of gynecology from inhumane experimentation on women that he enslaved, are largely afforded praise, attention, and reward while victims of medical brutalization sacrifice their bodies, and in many cases the simple dignity of their name. This rationale for cruelty does not only discredit individual accountability, it also degrades public faith in these beneficent systems.

Goal Setting Essay: The “Both/And” Between the Lines

The course epigraph states, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”

As Dr. McCoy mentioned the course epigraph in the beginning of the semester, these words have stuck with me throughout each class. My initial interpretation of the course epigraph is that it’s Beth’s job to recognize that we can both understand the core concepts of each document and make insightful connections between our life experiences and other themes present in the course documents. As I have taken numerous science related courses throughout my undergraduate experience, I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and take an English course that would challenge me to think critically in a new light. Since this class discusses the interrelationship between medicine, racism, and literature, I believe that it has provided me a great segue into a topic that I’m somewhat unfamiliar with along with something that has great familiarity to me. As I’ve become more aware of the course, I now view the epigraph with more thought. Not only is it important to unpack and think, it is also important to listen to your peers’ thoughts and how that can influence your own thinkING and unpackING of the same concept.

I never would have thought that a single semi-colon had so much meaning behind it as I initially didn’t think much of it when reading it in my head. As Beth suggested us to read aloud the first sentence in the preface of The Manumission Requiem in Fortune’s Bones, the way that the sentence was delivered indicated the significance of Marilyn Nelson’s grammatical choice. As I was hearing my peers interpretations of the semicolon, it opened my eyes to different perspectives. My favorite interpretation of the semi-colon was that Fortune was born into death, meaning that the semicolon served as an arrow to the next word. Similarly to sharing our interpretations relating to Fortune’s Bones, Beth had asked us to share an idea of what appeared to be significant in “Home”, but could not interpret it with the given context. As we all come from different backgrounds and experiences, this exercise highlighted the similarities and differences among our thinking. It further reinforced that listening to other perspectives challenges me to think in an insightful way based on my own interpretation and experiences. Furthermore, it inspires me to cultivate new questions based on what my peers have said. 

Since “both/and” is one of the course’s life preservers, it’s important to recognize these situations while reading the course documents. In Medical Apartheid, Beth pointed out that it was important to both adress the harmful procedures and treatments done to African Americans by white doctors and consider that these practices occurred at a different time of life. In Chapter 2, it directly mentions that the “experimental abuse of African Americans was not a cultural anomaly; it simply mirrored in the medical area the economic, social, health abuses that the larger society perpetuated against people of color.” The same chapter begins with the story of how Dr. Thomas Hamilton obtained the possession of John Brown, an enslaved person. Brown’s master, Stevens, fell ill and was recommended to Dr. Thomas Hamilton. Hamilton restored him back to health and asked him if he could give him any favor. In exchange, Brown was now in the possession of Dr. Hamilton, to be experimented on, without a care in the world from Stevens. Brown was unaware and in fear of what would be done to him as the doctor’s interest was finding the best remedy for sun-stroke. The first experiments consisted of Brown sitting on a stool naked, in a pit that contained a fire in it, exceeding temperatures of 100 degrees. Brown fainted within a half an hour and was lifted out while the temperature was recorded. Hamilton gave him some nostrum as this ordeal was repeated for some time. After researching the definition of nostrum, I found out that nostrum is a form of medicine that is not effective and prepared by an unqualified person. After this, Hamilton subjected Brown to a new set of experiments that caused him to bleed everyday and would blister Brown at two week intervals. Like Brown, there were many people that experienced the same feelings of iatrophobia. The same example of both/and also applies to Home when Cee is being treated after Dr. Beauregard experimented on her. Chapter 13 explains the final stage of Cee’s healing to be sun-smacked, meaning that she would “spend at least one hour a day with her legs spread open to the blazing sun.”  In response to Cee’s uncomfortableness with the treatment, the ladies were unbothered that she would be exposing others to a private area. Furthermore, they justified their decision by stating that completing the last step would give Cee a permanent cure to womb sickness and a kind that is beyond human power. As these ladies did not receive any professional medical training, religion played a major role in the implementation of their practices. 

As the course progresses, I would like to continue to ask more questions and engage in the course documents more to immerse myself and truly get the most out of this course. In the past, I have read books without thinking about the significance behind the words. Therefore one of my goals is to continue to analyze the text in order to efficiently unpack the meaning between the lines. Furthermore, I wish to take more consideration into my peers’ thoughts. In some cases, I find myself acknowledging their interpretations without contributing my insights into the same conversation or theme. Although this may seem harmless, I can see this as being a possible bad faith practice as I am not contributing to the expansion of the scope of the question or theme discussed. Ultimately, I wish to improve on supplementing these conversations with my thoughts, to not only enable my growth as a student and individual but to also potentially facilitate the growth of my peers as students and individuals (if my insights allow it). By implementing the both/and mindset into my class discussions, this will allow for more understanding of difficult topics and readings for both me and my peers. Not only this, but acknowledging multiple points of view may make others feel more comfortable expressing their true thoughts. With more contribution to our discussions, it benefits my peers, myself, and Beth by allowing her to recognize that we can notice. In other words, the contributions made relate to the course epigraph, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.”