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1850Pseudoscience

Race Science and Medical Experimentation

Illustrations of 19th Century Racist Depiction of Human Origins

19th Century Racist Depiction of Human Origins

Image of 1854 address, “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered,” by Frederick Douglass

Douglass Speech Challenging Pseudoscience, 1854

Race Science and Medical Experimentation

Image of 1854 address, “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered,” by Frederick Douglass

Douglass Speech Challenging Pseudoscience, 1854

J. Marion Sims, often referred to as the father of gynecology, conducted trial operations on enslaved Black women for several years without anesthesia. Enslaved women named Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsy are mentioned in his journals. After years of subjecting Black women to experimental operations without anesthesia, he successfully created a procedure to fix vesicovaginal fistula. He moved his practice to New York, where he performed this procedure on upper-middle class white women with anesthesia. Sims also studied trismus nascentium (infant lock jaw) and experimented on enslaved infants. He studied the disease by using a shoemaker's awl to pry the skull bones of Black infants into alignment. These were fatal procedures, but Sims blamed the fatalities on "the sloth and ignorance of their mothers and the black midwives who attended them."

African American doctors like James McCune Smith, the first African American to hold a medical degree, refuted racist pseudoscientific claims, as have generations of Black doctors, scientists, and medical professionals after him.

Photograph of Louis Agassiz

Agassiz, Louis, 1807-1873

Photograph of Louis Agassiz

Agassiz, Louis, 1807-1873

Racist, false beliefs about biological differences between the races were used to justify the enslavement and exploitation of Black people and informed the practice and research of much of 19th-century scientific thought.

Biologist Louis Agassiz espoused polygenism, the belief that the races developed separately and were of different origins. In his view, Black people were of the “lowest grade of humanity.” In 1850, Agassiz commissioned daguerreotypes of 15 enslaved men and women, including Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, to prove Black inferiority.