Before I share any of my thoughts, here is a little bit about Harriet A. Washington’s book.
Medical Apartheid is the first and only comprehensive history of medical experimentation on African Americans. Starting with the earliest encounters between black Americans and Western medical researchers and the racist pseudoscience that resulted, it details the ways both slaves and freedmen were used in hospitals for experiments conducted without their knowledge—a tradition that continues today within some black populations. It reveals how blacks have historically been prey to grave-robbing as well as unauthorized autopsies and dissections. Moving into the twentieth century, it shows how the pseudoscience of eugenics and social Darwinism was used to justify experimental exploitation and shoddy medical treatment of blacks, and the view that they were biologically inferior, oversexed, and unfit for adult responsibilities. Shocking new details about the government’s notorious Tuskegee experiment are revealed, as are similar, less-well-known medical atrocities conducted by the government, the armed forces, prisons, and private institutions.
This book is a major accomplishment on Washington’s part. It took her years of schooling and preparation to even be able to learn the correct way to speak of these medical abuses. You can sense her passion on the issues that are brought forth, and her immense understanding of all the forces at play. This book is ambitious and vast, and for that I am eternally grateful to Washington’s patience.
Aside from exposing the many atrocities against Black bodies, one of the most important things this book does is give context to the common idea that Black people are scared of medicine and doctors. Iatrophobia is the fear of doctors and medical treatment, and after reading this book you will come to understand that the Black communities fears are well founded.
The detailed language and intricacies of this book are admirable, however they do not make for an easy read. I really struggled to get through this book. Not only because the subject matter is devastating and infuriating, but also because the book is dense. Medical Apartheid is closer to reading a text book than anything else. It is a detailed history, and Washington takes herself and her subjects seriously. While there is great care to make sure the reader understands the medical jargon, there are plenty of statistics and clinical terms through out this book. There is a lot to get tripped up on. I made it through this book, but I had to work hard. I had to earn it.
The reward is an extremely well written expose on medical practices that target Black Americans. We are led from Marion Sims’ experiments on his female slaves through to governmental chemical attacks on Black neighborhoods in the American South. There is much that has been hidden away about the racist treatment of Blacks in this country, this book scrapes the surfaces of these events.
If you’re not sure you’re ready for such a dense look at a deeply troubling topic, you might consider reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which deals with one example of medical malpractice and theft of Black patients. Another book about racism in America is Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. I think Stamped from the Beginning (you can see my full review here) makes a great companion read with Medical Apartheid, as it dives into racism in America in a way that I have not often seen in books about race.
I recommend this book to anyone who is passionate about understanding anti-Black racism in The United States, anyone who works in fields where they conduct experiments on humans, or anyone passionate about medicine. Give yourself time, and be patient. This book is worth it.
- Paperback: 528 pages
- Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (January 8, 2008)
- 4/5 stars
- Buy Medical Apartheid on Amazon
- Listen to Medical Apartheid on Audible (for your free 30-day trial and audiobook download click here)
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