Academic journal article Nursing History Review

Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South

Academic journal article Nursing History Review

Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South

Article excerpt

Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South By Marie Jenkins Schwartz (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006) (401 pages; $29.95 cloth)

In addition to the human degradation that was slavery in the antebellum South, slavery was a business. The economics of slavery dictated and demanded that childbearing slaves be kept healthy and productive so their reproductive capabilities would financially benefit the owner. Marie Schwartz Jenkins explores this aspect of reproductive health as a central premise in Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South. Jenkins divides her work into women's reproductive health cycles, addressing procreation, fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth. Emphasized throughout this work is the dependency of the Southern plantation economy on slave reproduction.

Beyond describing care of the pregnant enslaved woman, though, this book presents obstetric knowledge and practices for all childbearing women, enslaved and free. Jenkins provides many archival references to medical and lay practices relating to women's health, both reproduction and general gynecologic health. Diverse explanations in contemporary language detail the uses of plants, herbs, and other tonics and medicines to alleviate conditions in childbearing and other women's health matters. Jenkins explores how many enslaved and free women did not differentiate the care they received from medical practitioners as all represented current knowledge. Rather, the differentiation lay in the concept of childbearing woman as property and subject to experimentation versus the free woman who could give consent for treatment and care. Jenkins presents this consent as being given by both free and slave, with the latter primarily shown in physicians' notes presented at local medical societies and in publications.

Many instances of compassionate medical treatment are presented by Jenkins, but these are counterbalanced by experimental treatments administered to enslaved women. It must be acknowledged, though, that these treatments were administered to cure or relieve suffering, not for the purposes of pure experimentation. …

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