Thursday, July 31, 2014

Medical Department #47 - Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

I'm pleased to provide below the text from my most recent "Medical Department" column in Civil War News.

“Medical Department”
August 2014
By Jim Schmidt
“Our Bodies, Ourselves”

"Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own." - Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

Anti-Slavery Bugle - Lisbon, OH - November 03, 1860

Recently, I read Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, first published in 1861. I was inspired to read it for two reasons: first, it seemed a good companion to last year’s award-winning film, Twelve Years a Slave (based on the 1853 narrative by Solomon Northup); second, on account of reading a recent excellent article, “"[No] Doctor but My Master": Health Reform and Antislavery Rhetoric in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” (J Med Humanit, Mar 2014), by Sarah L. Berry, Ph.D.

“Northrup’s narrative is a classic among the thousands of narratives told or written by enslaved men,” Dr. Berry wrote me after kindly agreeing to an interview, adding that, “Jacobs’s narrative is absolutely unique in being the only narrative written by a formerly enslaved woman before the Civil War and in directly addressing the sexual exploitation and disrupted parenting of enslaved women. Jacobs was brave to disclose the full extent of her experience to a middle-class female readership.”

Dr. Berry makes several important points that tie together the study of slavery and medicine that should be of interest to readers of this column: 1) she emphasizes Jacobs’s experience about the particular suffering of female slaves, especially in terms of sexual exploitation; 2) she demonstrates the power wielded by slaveholding physicians over the bodies and medical treatment of their female slaves (and of free white females); 3) she notes how Jacobs criticized the “heroic” medicine of the early-1800s; and 4) she explains how Incidents was more than an abolitionist track, but also part of the broader reform literature of the era, including medical reform.

Dr. Berry has a most interesting and diverse academic background – “I have a BS in Biology and a PhD in English, with experience in lab work and clinical research and, post-PhD, expertise in the field of Health Humanities,” she told me - which is wonderfully expressed in her equally diverse teaching, research, and writing interests: medicine, literature, social justice, and health. Most recently on the faculty of the English Department of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York, she’ll soon begin a new assignment as Assistant Professor of Biomedical Humanities at Hiram College in Ohio.
Harriet Jacobs - c1890s
Jacobs’s Incidents appealed to Dr. Berry owing to her general interest in women’s first-person narratives.  “I wanted to investigate them deeply to see if broad statements about women’s powerlessness that are often made in nineteenth-century studies were always true,” she told me, adding, “I wanted to learn about the nitty-gritty details of a woman’s life with illness, or injury, and medical treatment, and as a result I became very interested in the details of medical men’s practices.”

While Jacobs’s narrative has been analyzed by literature and history scholars, Dr. Berry recognized that no one found “Dr. Flint’s” (the fictionalized name of Harriet Jacobs’s master, Dr. James Norcom) profession as a physician important enough to mention. “That’s when I decided to go to Raleigh [North Carolina] and read his papers for myself, to find out what kind of doctor he was, and how that affected Jacobs,” Dr. Berry said.

Indeed, Dr. Berry’s essay is well-researched, drawing on Incidents itself, the papers of Jacobs’s master, Dr. James Norcom, the papers of mid-19th century reformers such as Amy Post, and recent scholarship in gender, slavery, abolition  and other 19th-century reform movements, medicine, and other academic studies.


Dr James Norcom - NC Museum of History
She compared what she found in Norcom’s personal writings with what Jacobs said about him, and about living her life under his thumb. “The results of my research bring to light many biographical and historical facts about Norcom that have not been discussed in the scholarship, and that help illuminate Jacobs’s unique abolitionist strategy of tying anti-slavery with anti-medicine arguments to appeal to a specifically white, middle-class female audience that was already beginning to protest both slavery and medicine in the 1850s when Jacobs was writing,” Dr. Berry explained.

Dr. Berry notes that Harriet Jacobs lived periodically among female reformers of Rochester, NY, who had responsibility for their family’s health. For these women, heroic medical practices were under debate and critiqued as too harsh, too expensive, and ineffective.  As an example of the treatments they criticized, Dr. Berry shares some of Dr. Norcom’s notes on his treatment of a (white) female patient:

“The case of Miss E. Boushel came out of the hands of Dr. Warren who had been prescribing for her, more than a year. She was never bled, seldom purged & only once or twice cupped – morphia & blisters were the remedies principally relied on for her relief. I have found her to require large depletion, active purgatives & strong revulsive remedies.”

Dr. Berry notes in the article that this is much more than an example of the “heroic” medicine practiced in the era, writing, “Norcom aggressively asserted control not only over Boushel’s disease, but also over body as a site for professional competition.” [One of the most interesting storylines in Incidents is Norcom’s “treatment” of Harriet’s original mistress; her subsequent death resulted in her transfer to Norcom’s household.]

“She also drew very clear parallels between the sexual endangerment of free female patients by male doctors who were increasingly taking over gynecology and obstetrics from midwives and the systematic sexual exploitation of enslaved girls and women,” Dr. Berry told me. In doing so, Jacobs “helped her make her case that white women and women of color were equals in terms of bodily rights and vulnerability to men,” she added.

No wonder that the reformers were pressing instead for alternatives that they perceived as gentler and more effective, such as the water cure. Likewise, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell sought to become a physician in no small part to the “moral degradation…from the practice of being treated by men in female complaints” suffered by free and enslaved females, alike.

Until now, my reading in this area had been limited to Todd Savitt’s Medicine and Slavery (1978).  “Savitt is classic and indispensable,” Dr. Berry told me, and happily added some other recommended reading for us: “Sharla M. Fett’s book - Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations (2002) - is an absolute pleasure; very accessible writing and very fascinating insight and evidence into the social and political convergence of African, indigenous, and European healing practices in numerous regions of the south.”

She also lists Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid (2006), Deborah McGregor’s From Midwives to Medicine (1998), and Marie Schwartz’s Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South (2006).

Dr. Berry acknowledges that hers is certainly not the last word on the intersection of Jacobs, Incidents, slavery, and medicine, and sees many opportunities for other avenues of research. “A larger outcome of my archival research was to suggest to me and I hope others the need for deep historical contextualization of enslaved peoples’ narratives in relation to medicine, healing, and the social power of the physician in the antebellum south,” she wrote me.

In her research she found account books and papers from other Edenton, North Carolina (Jacobs’s home until she escaped to the North) physicians, and believes that “much more ought to be investigated,” using those sources to see differences in the treatment of enslaved African-Americans and free whites in the antebellum South.

Web Exclusive: Link to full text of Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl:


1 comment:

Mark said...

Such brutality seems to get left out in Gone With The Wind...seems like a pretty big omission to me.