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The Gruesome History of Medical Experimentation on Enslaved Black People and Its Impact on American Medicine

Written by Monica Mendez
Edited by Darius Spearman
African Elements

Medical practice is founded on the principle of helping patients and doing no harm, a principle that has been in place for over two millennia. However, American medicine as we know it may not have been possible without the harmful and unwilling participation of enslaved African Americans. This article will delve into the gruesome history of medical experimentation on Black slaves and how it shaped American medicine.

The Role of Enslaved Black People in Medical Experimentation

Medical experimentation on enslaved Africans was not only common but critical to the development of modern medical practice. Even though the ethical treatment of patients is the normal standard of care expected in medicine, African Americans have historically found themselves an exception to that norm. Their enslavement made them vulnerable to being treated as subhuman experimental subjects with no regard for consent.

The Disposable Bodies of Enslaved Black People

Before the Civil War, the American South held approximately four million Black people in slavery. Enslaved Black people lacked fundamental human rights and bodily autonomy, making them an abundant supply of disposable labor and bodies. Societal norms held no qualms over the use of Black bodies for medical experimentation.

In the late eighteenth century, the establishment of American medicine created a demand for human subjects to enhance medical understanding. Although non-consensual, their enslavement often forced African Americans to satisfy that role. “Those who were enslaved were a vulnerable population that doctors used because of easy accessibility to their bodies.” (Deirdre Cooper Owens, 41) Societal norms held no qualms over the use of Black bodies out of convenience.

Blacks were considered more available and accessible in this white-dominated society; they were rendered physically visible by their skin color but were legally invisible because of their slave status (Savit, 332).

The Dehumanization of Enslaved Black People

The dehumanization that condoned the institution of slavery had dangerous effects on enslaved African Americans. Even in death, they were disposable, and their bodies were made accessible for medical experimentation. The very idea of enslavement condoned their ill-treatment, abuse, and living conditions that would never be deemed acceptable for even the lowliest whites.

It is to be expected in a slave society that the subjugated will be exploited. Such was the case in the American South, where blacks acted not only as servants and laborers but also as medical specimens. Some medical scientists living in that society took advantage of the slaves’ helplessness to utilize them in demonstrations, autopsies, dissections, and experiments, situations distasteful to whites and rejected by them. (Savit, 347).

As a result, the use of enslaved Black people in medical experimentation was prominent from the infancy of American medicine.

Before establishing the first medical school in the United States in 1765, medical practitioners traveled to other countries to receive formal education. Slavery in the American South flourished in the 1830s alongside the establishment of medical schools there. Medical schools fueled the need for human bodies for teaching and testing. Historian Stephen Kenny has documented how slave bodies were exploited in these institutions for dissections, anatomy classes, and clinical experimentations. (Schiebinger, 88).

The Exploitation of Enslaved Black People in Medical Institutions

Medical practitioners who traveled to other countries to receive formal education established the first medical school in the United States in 1765. Slavery in the American South flourished in the 1830s alongside the establishment of medical schools. Medical schools fueled the need for human bodies for teaching and testing. Slave bodies were exploited in these institutions for dissections, anatomy classes, and clinical experiments.

The Belief that Black People Did Not Experience Pain

The dehumanization of enslaved Black people allowed for the promulgation of the idea that they did not experience pain to the extent of their white counterparts. By 1809, Dr. Ephraim McDowell, known as the “Father of the Ovariotomy,” developed a method for removing ovarian tumors after acquiring and experimenting on enslaved Black women. One observer wrote,

Ephraim McDowell, ca 1900

All of the women operated upon in Kentucky, except one, were negresses…and they will bear cutting with nearly, if not quite, as much impunity as dogs and rabbits…our wonder was lessened since physicians understood that black women’s propensity to handle pain was effortless (Deirdre Cooper Owens, 31).

The Sexual Exploitation of Enslaved Black Women

Enslaved Black women often bore the brunt of both physical and sexual exploitation. Many endured forced medical procedures against their will, and their lack of bodily autonomy in some cases subjected them to sexual exploitation.

The enslaved women were not asked if they would agree to such an operation as they were totally without any claims to decision-making about their bodies or any other aspect of their lives (Ojanuga, 29).

Dr. John Peter Mettauer performed one of the country’s first successful vesicovaginal fistula operations in 1840. Often a result of complications after vaginal or bladder surgery, a vesicovaginal fistula is an opening that forms between the bladder and the wall of the vagina. Mettauer developed his method after performing experimental surgeries on a twenty-year-old bondwoman to repair her fistula. After repeated failures, Mettauer went so far as to blame the enslaved woman’s sexual activity for the persistence of her condition even though,

John Peter Mettauer (1916)

Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mettauer’s slave patient had little or no agency to refuse men who wanted to engage in a sexual relationship with her, just as she could not end her participation in a gynecological clinical trial that proved ineffective for years (Deirdre Cooper Owens, 34).

Conclusion: The Violation of Medical Ethics

The use of Black slaves in medical experimentation was an appealing direction for the American medical establishment due to its little regard for Black lives in combination with an abundance of disposable enslaved Black people. Those enslaved Blacks who endured exploitation as medical subjects are the silent contributors who go unrecognized for the medical advancements resulting from their non-consensual experimentation. The cruel medical experiments enslaved Blacks experienced lie in stark contrast to the core pillars of medical ethics, which require respect for autonomy and the obligation to do no harm.


Ojanuga, D. The Medical Ethics of the ‘Father of Gynaecology’, .Dr. J Marion Sims. Journal of Medical Ethics, vol. 19, no. 1, BMJ Publishing Group Ltd and Institute of Medical Ethics, 1993, pp. 28–31,

Owens, Deirdre Cooper. Medical Bondage Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology. University of Georgia Press, 2017.

Savit, T. L. The Use of Blacks for Medical Experimentation and Demonstration in the Old South. The Journal of Southern History, vol. 48, no. 3, Southern Historical Association, 1982, pp. 331–48, doi:10.2307/2207450.

Schiebinger, Londa. Secret Cures of enslaved people, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Stanford University Press, 2017.