Treating the Black Body: Race and Medicine in American Culture, 1800-1861

Chris Willoughby is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Tulane University. In 2014-2015 he was a Research Fellow of the Consortium. His report on his Consortium-funded research is below. My dissertation explores the relationship between medical theory and racial science in the antebellum United States, arguing that medical schools acted as critical spaces for knowledge production and dissemination about black bodies. The dissertation explores the history of race primarily through the lens of medical students, discussing race in their senior theses. While there are robust historiographies of medical education, medical theory, and racial science, these subjects have never been considered in conjunction. My dissertation bridges these gaps, looking at how medical students and faculty discussed race in terms of both theory and practice. Moreover, it argues that racial theories like polygenesis—the theory that each human race was a separate species— and monogenesis—the theory of a unified human species— were informed by the theories and methodologies of nineteenth century medicine. Like the methods later shared between geneticists and eugenicists, polygenetic visions of the black body were largely shaped by a methodology central to antebellum medical education, human dissection. My fellowship from the Consortium allowed me to spend time working with collections that would add greater context to my work on students' writing, including the papers of medical professors featured in the earlier period of my study like Benjamin Rush, William Shippen, and Charles Caldwell. In addition, I was able to look at the published and manuscript papers of significant racial scientists including Samuel Morton, Josiah Nott, and Peter Arrell Browne. This research has allowed me to connect my work on medical students to more traditional actors in intellectual history with research visits to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the American Philosophical Society, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. At the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, I was able to work with Peter Arrell Browne’s collection of human hair that he used to argue that black and white people were different species. Browne collected hair from presidents, significant national political figures, his fellow racial scientist, slaves, and animals (sheep in particular), to argue that black people did not have hair but instead wool. Browne’s collection highlights the centrality of comparative anatomy to mid-nineteenth-century systems of racial classification. This collection also contained numerous pieces of correspondence between Browne and prominent racial scientists, which will aid in the recreation of networks of knowledge circulation in the antebellum United States. Browne and other northern racial theorists also highlighted how racial theory was a national project that went beyond pro-slavery politics. Samuel Morton’s personal papers and correspondence were the central focus of my time spent at the American Philosophical Society. Letters to and from Morton complicate historians’ depictions of him as a dignified scientist in comparison to his fellow polygenists like Josiah Nott. Moreover, Morton’s correspondence displayed a larger network of anthropological discussion than just those who published on racial science. As fellow anatomy professors, Morton’s correspondence with John Collins Warren of Harvard University, underscored how racial science and the anatomical features of black bodies were a common feature of an antebellum anatomy education. Likewise, Morton’s correspondence relating to collecting skulls for his ethnological works shows how knowledge production about race existed in a larger network of archeological exchange, implicating the culture of natural history for racial knowledge production. At the College of Physicians, I focused on the early history of the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania and Benjamin Rush in particular. In a student notebook on the lectures of Benjamin Rush, I found evidence that Benjamin Rush told his classes that black skin was a form of leprosy. This revelation helped me identify that almost since its inception the American medical school was a site for dissemination and production of putative scientific knowledge about race. Most importantly, since the earliest days at the University of Pennsylvania, professors saw medical theory as having both holistic and social functions. Finally, my focus at the Kislak Center was in rare racial science texts that would help in contextualizing how medical students discussed race within this larger theoretical paradigm. In undertaking a close analysis of Josiah Nott’s translation of Comte de Gobineau’s The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races, I found two important pieces of evidence. First, Gobineau explained how the polygenists had to go beyond the skull and look at the rest of the body to prove their arguments. Here, Gobineau gave a direct admission in favor of one of my central arguments. Second, in the appendix, Nott published a letter from Joseph Leidy, the professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania, where Leidy expressly stated that he believed that black and white people were different species. This source along with other printed texts allowed me to provide greater context and force to my argument that anatomy professors played a key role in shaping the American racial discourse. In general, the opportunity to return to Philadelphia provided by a fellowship from the Consortium allowed me to greatly enrich the depth and scope of my dissertation. Research conducted for this fellowship has provided additional evidence in favor of the notion of the medical school as a critical site for knowledge production about black bodies in the antebellum era. Likewise, it was hardly a coincidence that so many antebellum racial theorists were trained physicians, and a number were also anatomy professors. Moreover, this research trip provided me new evidence that whether a physician supported polygenesis or monogenesis, most believed medicine had a profound statement to make about black bodies and American race relations. In this sense, the history of racial science can only be understood as existing in both the world of politics and science simultaneously just as its theorist did.

Christopher Willoughby