“Medical Apartheid”

By The News Mar 02, 2007

This week, Bukola Ekundayo shares highlights from a Must-Read—Harriet Washington’s new book Medical Apartheid that exposes America’s dark history of medical experimentation on African Americans to explain today’s ingrained health disparities between Blacks and whites. *** Across the board, whether we’re talking mental, physical, or sexual wellness, Blacks are falling behind. In her 2007 book Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington argues that the medical abuse of Blacks by white institutions has created today’s healthcare crisis: Blacks refusing medication, delaying and avoiding medical exams and critical medical research trials. One story introduces us to Dr. James Marion Sims, an early American surgeon who specialized in the care of women. Sims routinely experimented on his female slaves without anesthesia. Back then, researchers believed Blacks were sub-human creatures who didn’t feel pain. In a chilling account:

“Each naked anaesthetized slave woman had to be forcibly restrained by the other physicians through her shrieks of agony as Sims determinedly sliced, then sutured her genitalia. The other doctors fled when they could bear the scene no longer.”

The resulting breakthroughs he uncovered secured his seat as president of the American Medical Association. My aim is to feature parts of the book that at times, read like a haunting horror story. My hope is that government and medical institutions will acknowledge this gruesome history and commit themselves to more racially conscious ethical standard. Many medical scholars routinely dismiss Blacks’ mistrust of the medical establishment as an “irrational” paranoia and attribute it to the now iconic Tuskegee Syphilis Study—the Depression era experiment conducted on a pool of Black men with syphilis who were kept in a camp where they were denied treatment. Even when a cure was found in 1947, these experiments continued until 1972 when a news leak exposed the dirty practice. But this study has been eclipsed in both numbers and egregiousness by other abusive medical studies. The doctors of the Tuskegee Study coolly observed their subjects’ bodies become ravaged by Syphilis, but other subjects were given toxic substances or deliberately exposed to lethal radiation doses, untested chemical products, and risky vaccines. One notable example, an experiment in malaria therapy, conducted under the wing of the Rockefeller Foundation around the same time as the Tuskegee Study, had researchers deliberately infect 470 syphilitic Blacks with a deadly strain of Malaria in pursuit of a novel treatment for late-stage syphilis. The usual subjects of these horrific experiments were the especially vulnerable among African Americans, including children, Black prisoners, and Black women. The stories are filled with tragedy and often times no road to justice. Between 1987 and 1991, US researchers administered as much as five hundred times the approved dosage of the experimental Edmonton-Zagreb vaccine against measles to African American and Hispanic babies in Black neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The parents of these children did not know that the vaccine was experimental. They were also not aware of a similar study in one of the poorest cities in Haiti where many of the 2,000 Haitian children vaccinated became sick and died. The World Health Organization soon abandoned their plans to test the vaccine throughout developing countries. Even after these deaths, Black and Hispanic children in L.A. were given the vaccine. Sadly, children of developing countries have now become the testing ground of choice for medical researchers conducting their studies on the cheap. Like in the 1960s and 1970s when a Mississippi neurosurgeon, Orlando J. Andy, experimented on young Black boys to correct supposed behavioral problems by cutting out parts of their brains. There was no indication that the boys had behavioral problems or were otherwise ill. Yet like Dr. Sims, the women’s doctor, he was and continues to be revered by his university, the University of Miami. The unwilling participation of Blacks in experiments of torture, abuse, and humiliation at the hands of doctors has led to Black iatrophobia–a Latin term coined by Washington meaning fear of medicine. Now with the evidence out in the clear, it’s time for institutional recognition of these events that so inform many Blacks’ health consciousness today. For starters, the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges should train all their doctors and medical students in this history. In addition, we can do our part. We can work through our fears with our doctors by talking to them about our concerns, getting third- and forth opinions, and sharing this important history. Bukola Ekundayo specialized in political science and foreign policy at Northwestern University where she graduated in 2005. An account manager, Ekundayo is also a consummate pop culture analyst and concerned former pre-med major. Reach her at Bukola.Ekundayo@gmail.com.