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Etiology and Genetics

The idea that different races were particularly subject to or immune from certain diseases helped spread the idea of racial difference throughout the Western hemisphere. Dr. John Lining’s assertion that Africans were immune to yellow fever led to expectations that Africans would care for the sick. Slavery advocate Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright published prolifically about several ailments such as “drapetomania,” which he described as a mental illness that caused enslaved blacks to flee captivity. Proponents of an innate basis for racial inferiority have argued that race mixing lead to deformities that would ultimately destroy the white race. 

An Essay On the Malignant Pestilential Fever Introduced into the West Indian Islands

Colin Chisholm (1755–1825) 

An Essay on the Malignant Pestilential Fever Introduced into the West Indian Islands from Boullam  

Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1799 

The morbidity and mortality chart shown here suggests that “People of Colour and Negroes” were less likely to get sick and die during a 1793 yellow fever outbreak in the West Indies. A letter written by Dr. John Lining describing the 1748 yellow fever outbreak in Charleston, South Carolina, is appended to the end of this report. Lining concluded that blacks were immune to yellow fever, a claim that had devastating consequences during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia, when black suffering was ignored or minimized.

Health Sciences History Collection

Rare Book Collection Health Sciences History WC 530 C542 1799

Extracts from the journal of Elizabeth Drinker, from 1759 to 1807, A.D.

Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker (1734–1807) 

Extracts from the Journal of Elizabeth Drinker 

Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1889 

Philadelphia resident Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker kept a diary from 1758 to 1807. During the city’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic, Drinker repeated the claim that blacks were immune to the disease, stating, “’Tis remarkable that not one Negro has yet taken the infection – they have offered to act as nurses to the sick.”  

Rare Book Collection

Rare Book Collection F158.44 .D78 

An Account of the Bilious Remitting Yellow Fever: As It Appeared in the City of Philadelphia, in the Year 1793

Benjamin Rush (1746–1813) 

An Account of the Bilious Remitting Yellow Fever  

Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1794 

After seeing how yellow fever affected the black population during Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic, physician Benjamin Rush admits he was wrong to repeat John Lining’s conclusion that blacks were immune to yellow fever. Despite his very public disavowal, Rush also believed that race mediated degrees of suffering from the disease and remained committed to the idea that blacks suffered less from yellow fever than whites.  

Rare Book Fund, presented by H. McLeod Riggins, M.D. Blackwell Sawyer, M.D., Bryan P. Warren, M.D., B.W. Roberts, M.D., Health Sciences History Collection

Rare Book Collection Health Sciences History WC 530 R952 1794

"Cartwright on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race", The Georgia blister and critic, Vol. 1, No. 6 (August 1854)

Samuel A. Cartwright (1793–1863) 

“Cartwright on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race” 

The Georgia Blister and Critic, Vol. 1, No. 6 (August 1854), Atlanta: Kay’s Mammoth Job Office, 1854–1855     

In an article published in the monthly Southern medical journal The Georgia Blister and Critic, Southern physician Samuel A. Cartwright describes several “complaints among negroes” and offers unique recommendations for treatment. Cartwright’s views were shared widely, and were republished and discussed in medical journals throughout the Southern United States. 

Southern Pamphlet Collection, Rare Book Collection

Rare Book Collection Southern Pamphlet So. Pam. 6479

Cotton is King, and Pro-slavery Arguments

E. N. Elliott

Cotton is King, and Pro-slavery Arguments 

Augusta, Georgia: Pritchard, Abbott & Loomis, 1860 

Many of the pathologies presented by pro-slavery physicians were continuations of theories developed during the eighteenth century. This compilation of pro-slavery essays includes Southern physician Samuel A. Cartwright’s descriptions of “Dysesthaesia Ethiopica” (a black person’s unwillingness to work) and “Cachexia Africana” (dirt eating). Cartwright is perhaps most famous for coining the term “Drapetomania,” which he described as a disease caused by mental illness that caused black slaves to flee captivity.  

Rare Book Collection

Rare Book Collection E449 .E48

"African Consumption", The Stethoscope, Vol. IV, No. XI (November 1854)

John R. Hicks 

“African Consumption” 

The Stethoscope, Vol. IV, No. XI (November 1854) 

Unable to reproduce Samuel A. Cartwright’s findings, North Carolina physician John R. Hicks and the editors of The Stethoscope question the existence of a “distinctive negro physiology or pathology.”  

Health Sciences History Collection

Rare Book Collection Health Sciences History W 1 S842 v.4(1854)

"Thoughts on Cachexia Africana or Negro Consumption", Transylvania Journal of Medicine, v.5(1832)

C. H. Jordan

“Thoughts on Cachexia Africana or Negro Consumption” 

Transylvania Journal of Medicine, v.5(1832) Lexington, Kentucky: Joseph Norwood, 1828–1839 

Person County, N. C., physician C. H. Jordan argues that “Negro consumption” (which he says is synonymous with “Cachexia Africana” although it is defined differently elsewhere) is a preventable and treatable illness and is not unique to blacks. Jordan admits that by publishing such views, he is “occupying debatable ground,” but that “facts are stubborn things.”  

Health Sciences History Collection

Rare Book Collection Health Sciences History W 1 T772 v.5(1832)

Irregularities of the Teeth and their Treatment

Eugene S. Talbot (1847–1924) 

Irregularities of the Teeth and their Treatment 

Philadelphia: P. Blackiston [sic], Son & Co., 1888 

Dentist Eugene S. Talbot notes a lack of irregularities in the teeth and jaws of “ancient uncivilized and nomadic barbarians” and that “irregularities caused by heredity may result from the intermarriage of different nationalities.”  

Health Sciences History Collection

Rare Book Collection Health Sciences History WU 44 T138 1888 

Race Problems and Human Progress

W. C. George (1888–1982)

Race Problems and Human Progress 

West Sayville, New York: Probe [1967] 

Wesley Critz George (1888–1982) was professor of histology and embryology and chair of the Anatomy Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, and a researcher of the genetics of race. George opposed integration and race mixing, arguing that it would destroy the superior white race.

Gift of W. C. George, North Carolina Collection

North Carolina Collection C378 UMg349.2