Historical Perspectives On Contemporary Issues

Christopher Willoughby — Masters of Health: Racial Science and Slavery in U.S. Medical Schools

In this episode of Perspectives we speak with Christopher Willoughby, author of Masters of Health: Racial Science and Slavery in U.S. Medical Schools. Masters of Health examines how the founders of U.S. medical schools promoted an understanding of race influenced by the theory of polygenesis—that each race was created separately and as different species—which they supported by training students to collect and measure human skulls from around the world. Medical students came to see themselves as masters of Black people's bodies through stealing Black people's corpses, experimenting on enslaved people, and practicing distinctive therapeutics on Black patients. In documenting these practices Masters of Health charts the rise of racist theories in U.S. medical schools, throwing new light on the extensive legacies of slavery in modern medicine.


Recorded on October 30, 2023.

Closed captioning available on YouTube.

Insights from the Collections
The Consortium's collections provide many opportunities to learn more about the history of race and medicine. See the Consortium search hub to find more.
Materials related to this topic include:
Holmes Lectures on Anatomy, 1850-1882, Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
Jeffries Wyman Papers, Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
Joseph Leidy Correspondence, Academy of Natural Sciences, Drexel University
Joseph Leidy Papers, College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Samuel George Morton Papers, American Philosophical Society
Join a related Working Group for monthly discussions:
Applied Medical History
History of Anthropology
Evolution and Heredity in Brazil
Reproductive Health Histories
See also work from our fellows:
Rana Hogarth, Measuring Miscegenation: Eugenic Race-Crossing Studies and the Legacies of Slavery
Timothy Minella, By Their Locks You Shall Know Them: Race, Science, and Hair in the Nineteenth Century
Udodiri Okwandu, Transgressive Motherhood: Diagnostic Privilege, Race, and Maternal Mental Illness in American Psychiatry, Medicine, and Law, 1890 - 1970
Miriam Rich, Monstrous Childbirth: Concepts of Race and Defective Reproduction in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Science, Medicine, and Law