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A History of American Medical Apartheid Comes to NCCU

Written by North Carolina Central University on 28 September 2010.

Department of Public Health Education at North Carolina Central UniversityDURHAM – The Department of Public Health Education at North Carolina Central University will host a lecture and book-signing with award-winning author Harriet A. Washington, on Oct. 6 at 5 p.m., in the H.M. Michaux, Jr. School of Education Auditorium.  Washington is the author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, which examines the long history of medical experiments involving American blacks.  The book has earned several awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the PEN/Oakland Award, the American Library Association Black Caucus BCALA Nonfiction Award and the Gustavus Meyers Award.

Published in 2006, Medical Apartheid is considered the first full history of African-Americans’ mistreatment as experimental subjects from the era of slavery to the present. The book recounts familiar incidents, like the infamous Tuskegee study (1932-72) in which African-American sharecroppers, suffering from syphilis, were observed in a research study by the U.S. Public Health Service and ultimately prevented from receiving the penicillin that might have cured them.  Washington also explores the sometimes conflicting contributions of medical professionals, including Dr. J. Marion Sims. Sims was a mid-19th-century Alabama surgeon who developed the first successful technique for the repair of gynecological fistulas—abnormal passageways that sometimes develop between the bladder and the vagina as a result of prolonged labor.  In afflicted women, the condition is marked by pain, chronic infection and the continuous leakage of urine.

Sims used three slave women suffering from fistula problems to develop new techniques to repair this condition. Over the course of four years he experimented on the women more than 30 times without the use of anesthesia. Although anesthesia had recently become available, Sims, like many physicians during that time, held the belief that African-Americans did not feel pain.  Sims finally perfected his technique and successfully repaired the fistulas.  It was only after the success of the early experiments on slaves that he attempted the procedure on Caucasian women, this time with anesthesia. Today he is considered by many to be the father of American gynecology.

Other episodes are more obscure but no less chilling. Washington describes, for instance, the purchase of slaves solely for the purpose of experimentation and exploitation as curiosities at fairs, museums and zoos, often as part of a false justification for racial discrimination. She suggests, too, that blacks have been especially harmed by dangerous research involving everything from burns and radiation exposure to blood transfusions.

Washington’s work focuses on bioethics, health disparities, the history of medicine, African-American health issues and the intersection of medicine, ethics and culture. The recipient of some of the most prestigious national awards in journalism, Washington has served as a fellow at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, a visiting scholar at DePaul College of Law, a John S. Knight Journalism fellow at Stanford University and as a senior research scholar at the National Center for Bioethics at Tuskegee University.

The event is open to the public, but registration is required. To register, contact Sharon Spencer at (919) 530-5334.

North Carolina Central University is the first publicly-supported liberal arts college for African-Americans and for two consecutive years, U.S. News & World Report ranked NCCU the top public historically black college or university in the country.  Today, NCCU welcomes a diverse student body of more than 8,500 students enrolled in programs such as law, business, library science, nursing, education, and biotechnology.