Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Differences in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840

Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Differences in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840

Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Differences in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840

Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Differences in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840


In 1748, as yellow fever raged in Charleston, South Carolina, doctor John Lining remarked, "There is something very singular in the constitution of the Negroes, which renders them not liable to this fever." Lining's comments presaged ideas about blackness that would endure in medical discourses and beyond. In this fascinating medical history, Rana A. Hogarth examines the creation and circulation of medical ideas about blackness in the Atlantic World during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She shows how white physicians deployed blackness as a medically significant marker of difference and used medical knowledge to improve plantation labor efficiency, safeguard colonial and civic interests, and enhance control over black bodies during the era of slavery.

Hogarth refigures Atlantic slave societies as medical frontiers of knowledge production on the topic of racial difference. Rather than looking to their counterparts in Europe who collected and dissected bodies to gain knowledge about race, white physicians in Atlantic slaveholding regions created and tested ideas about race based on the contexts in which they lived and practiced. What emerges in sharp relief is the ways in which blackness was reified in medical discourses and used to perpetuate notions of white supremacy.


Besides, there are many striking variations between the temperaments
of the whites, and those of the Negroes, sufficient almost to induce a
belief of a different organization, which the knife of the anatomist,
however, has never been able to detect.

—DR. collins, Practical Rules for the Management and Medical
     Treatment of Negro Slaves in the Sugar Colonies by a Professional
, 1803

In 1803, a British practitioner known only as Dr. Collins set out to offer the best advice for maintaining the health and productivity of the enslaved African laborers that toiled on plantations across the Atlantic World. Collins’s words, however, did much more than advise; they revealed the very real ways that Atlantic World slavery became essential to modern conceptions of race and racial difference. With a stroke of his pen, Collins hinted at a complex and pressing question that had nagged at physicians and anatomists for years: Was there something physiological that made the black race and white race innately different? Collins, it appeared, believed that there was. Race, by the time of Collins’s writing, had already emerged as a characteristic that distinguished different kinds of humans from one another based on visually distinct physical and physiological traits. and while a number of scholars have argued that culture, language, and climate had much more to do with the idea of race than biology did, or that race did not become associated with biological essentialism until well into the nineteenth century, these arguments do not explicitly consider how race was made and remade in the context of American slave societies. Within these spaces, Europeans increasingly grew to define African and Native American populations by their customs, religion, and bodies. Indeed, scholarship from the last twenty years reveals that race signified difference in a heritable, biological, and social sense in eighteenth-century American slaveholding societies.

If we return to Collins’s statement, we see a relatively unsurprising approach to understanding human difference based on racial characteristics.

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