Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Least of Our Brothers...Medical Aspects of Slavery

Came across a very interesting and recent article (albeit from a rather obscure journal!) describing the medical effects of slavery, especially as the result of infectious disease.

Dr. Patricia Lambert, an anthropologist at Utah State University, writes about the skeletal remains of 17 people buried in the Eaton Ferry Cemetery in northern North Carolina, which provided a means of examining health and infectious disease experience in the nineteenth-century South:

"The cemetery appears to contain the remains of African Americans enslaved on the Eaton family estate from approximately 1830-1850, and thus offers a window into the biological impacts of North American slavery in the years preceding the Civil War. The sample includes the remains of six infants, one child, and one young and nine mature adults (five men, four women, and one unknown)."

Lambert used "skeletal indices" to characterize health and disease in the population, which revealed a picture of compromised health - including high rates of dental disease, childhood growth disruption, and infectious disease, specifically tuberculosis and congenital syphilis.

Lambert's findings support previous research on the health impacts of slavery: that infants and children were the most negatively impacted segment of the enslaved African American population.

To be sure, the "Methods" and "Results" section of the article is geared towards the professional anthropologist, but the Introduction (esp. the background of the cemetery) and the Discussion give an excellent picture of the terrible physical toll of slavery.

For purposes of a future "Medical Department" column in The Civil War News, I have contacted Dr. Lambert with a few questions, including:

1) What brought her back to the Eaton estate (she had first visited it in 1994)?

2) Based on the citations in the article, it would seem that there is a lack of recent scholarship on this most interesting subject…is there a reason for that?

3) The purpose of her article was to examine infectious disease among the buried, but did she also have a chance to consider evidence of "physical abuse" in this or other studies? How is it manifested in remains of enslaved African-Americans? She made some references to "traumatic injury" in her paper…was this likely due to physical abuse?

4) Clearly, from the clinical and statistical analysis in the article, anthropology is very much an "exact science"…what misconceptions do you think most lay people have about the profession?

5) Can she recommend any good reading or web sources that readers of the column could refer to learn more about the health problems faced by slaves in antebellum America?

Dimitri Rotov recently compained about archaeologists in his blog...perhaps he would be happy to read about one who seems to have gotten it right.


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