Juneteenth Reflection: Honoring the Contributions of Black Individuals to Medical Breakthroughs

While the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, enslaved people in Texas were not liberated from slavery until June 19, 1865, now called Juneteenth [1]. Although Juneteenth has been celebrated for nearly 150 years, public awareness of its celebration grew in 2020 amid nationwide protests after the police killings of several Black Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Juneteenth was signed as a federal holiday in the subsequent year [2]. To commemorate this historic day, we chose to acknowledge and celebrate the significant contributions made by African Americans while enslaved to further healthcare and medicine. The impact of Black individuals has been profound, often playing an essential role in driving medical breakthroughs. This blog post aims to shed light on some remarkable instances where Black bodies have advanced medical knowledge, highlighting the resilience, strength, and scientific legacy of the Black community.


African Americans advanced healthcare and medicine as the subjects of medical experimentation: 


Advancing Gynecology and Reproductive Health:

The field of gynecology owes a debt of gratitude to Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey, three enslaved Black women who endured unimaginable suffering while being subjected to experimental surgeries without anesthesia [3]. Marion J. Sims, the “Father of Gynecology”, experimented on a minimum of seven enslaved Black women and girls in Montgomery between 1845 and 1849. These experiments aimed to develop a technique for repairing a chronic childbirth complication. Despite the experiments causing extreme agony and posing potential life-threatening risks, Sims only required permission from the owners of the enslaved women, as they held legal control over their bodies.

The failed experiments performed on Lucy nearly caused her death due to severe blood poisoning. Nonetheless, Sims continued to conduct procedures on enslaved women, occasionally resorting to drugging them to prevent resistance. Anarcha, an enslaved teenager, underwent at least 13 operations without anesthesia before Sims devised a repair technique considered safe enough to attempt on white patients.

Lucy, Anarcha, Betsey and other enslaved patients were unable to refuse treatment or provide consent, leaving them powerless against medical exploitation. Throughout and after enslavement, physicians often denied Black individuals basic dignity and personhood, perpetuating the pervasive and dehumanizing myth that Black people had a higher tolerance for pain compared to white individuals.

Sims was celebrated for his medical achievements, and his statue remained present on the grounds of the Alabama State Capitol. However, an increasing awareness of his brutal mistreatment of Black women has led to a broader understanding of his legacy as a particularly cruel chapter in the history of racial injustice. In April 2018, a statue of Sims was removed from New York City’s Central Park [3].

Their bodies were crucial in advancing surgical techniques for treating gynecological conditions, ultimately saving countless lives and improving women’s health.


Tuskegee Syphilis Study:

In 1932, the US Public Health Service (USPHS) and the Tuskegee Institute initiated a study called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” (now known as the “USPHS Syphilis Study at Tuskegee”). It involved 600 African American men, with 399 having syphilis and 201 without the disease. Participants did not give informed consent and were told they were receiving treatment for “bad blood.” In exchange for their participation, the men received complimentary medical exams, meals, and burial insurance.

Although penicillin became the preferred syphilis treatment in the 1940s, the men in the study were not offered it. In 1972, the Associated Press published an article about the study, prompting the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs to establish an Ad Hoc Advisory Panel to review the research. The panel deemed the study “ethically unjustified” due to the disproportionately minimal results compared to the known risks to the human subjects. In October 1972, the panel recommended discontinuing the study, and the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs officially terminated it a month later. In March 1973, the panel also advised the Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now known as the Department of Health and Human Services) to instruct the USPHS to provide necessary medical care for the survivors of the study. Consequently, the Tuskegee Health Benefit Program (THBP) was established to offer these services. In 1973, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the study participants and their families, resulting in a $10 million out-of-court settlement in 1974. US President Clinton issued a formal apology in 1997. 

While morally reprehensible, the study contributed to advancements in understanding the long-term effects of untreated syphilis, leading to important guidelines and changes in medical research ethics.


And as the drivers of medical innovation: 


Effective Treatment for Tropical Diseases 

Africans possessed valuable insights on tropical diseases. Historian Londa Schiebinger examined the development of medical knowledge and experiments conducted on slaves in British and French colonies between the 1760s and early 1800s and found an example of what could be considered a “cure-off” contest conducted in Grenada in 1773 [4]. Enslaved Africans created treatments aimed to address yaws, a severe tropical infection affecting the skin, bones, and joints, commonly found in impoverished and unsanitary conditions. The enslaved doctor successfully cured his patients within a span of two weeks, whereas the European surgeon’s patients did not experience the same outcome. Recognizing the effectiveness of the African-born doctor’s methods, the plantation owner, who had a scientific inclination, appointed him as the primary caregiver for all yaws patients in the plantation hospital. 


Contributions to Surgical Techniques and Procedures:

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a pioneering African American surgeon, performed the first successful open-heart surgery in 1893 [5]. His groundbreaking operation paved the way for modern cardiac surgery techniques. Daniel Hale Williams also founded Provident Hospital in 1891,  the first non-segregated hospital in the United States. Recognizing the importance of nursing education, he also established two hospital-based training programs for nursing. Dr. Williams co-founded the National Medical Association, an organization dedicated to promoting the interests of African American healthcare professionals. His exceptional contributions and tireless advocacy for African Americans in medicine are acknowledged and celebrated by educational institutions worldwide.

Recognizing and honoring the contributions of Black individuals to medical breakthroughs is crucial not only to commemorate Juneteenth but also to promote equity and justice in healthcare. The stories of resilience, strength, and scientific advancement that emerge from these historical accounts highlight the immense potential that exists within marginalized communities. By understanding and appreciating the pivotal role played by Black people in shaping medical knowledge, we can foster an inclusive and equitable healthcare system for all.

As we celebrate Juneteenth, let us strive to continue the legacy of these pioneers by advocating for equal access to healthcare, promoting diversity in medical research, and addressing health disparities that disproportionately affect communities of color. 


[1] “Juneteenth with Annette Gordon-Reed | New-York Historical Society.” https://www.nyhistory.org/video/juneteenth-with-annette-gordon-reed?gad=1&gclid=CjwKCAjwp6CkBhB_EiwAlQVyxaP0c_WIhHC73Ck4bYAMInDtm5WJ4YvW63RaLnP8mV_8weHzPbl_hxoC-kMQAvD_BwE (accessed Jun. 13, 2023).

[2] K. Schaeffer, “More than half of states will recognize Juneteenth as an official public holiday in 2023,” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/06/09/nearly-half-of-states-now-recognize-juneteenth-as-an-official-holiday/ (accessed Jun. 13, 2023).

[3] A. Urell, “Medical Exploitation of Black Women,” Equal Justice Initiative, Aug. 29, 2019. https://eji.org/news/history-racial-injustice-medical-exploitation-of-black-women/ (accessed Jun. 13, 2023).

[4] A. SHASHKEVICH, “Medical experimentation on slaves in 18th-century Caribbean colonies,” Stanford News, Aug. 10, 2017. https://news.stanford.edu/2017/08/10/medical-experimentation-slaves-18th-century-caribbean-colonies/ (accessed Jun. 13, 2023).

[5] “Who Was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams?,” Jackson Heart Study Graduate Training and Education Center. https://www.jsums.edu/gtec/dr-daniel-hale-williams/ (accessed Jun. 14, 2023).

[6] T. L. Savitt and M. F. Goldberg, “Herrick’s 1910 Case Report of Sickle Cell Anemia: The Rest of the Story,” JAMA, vol. 261, no. 2, pp. 266–271, Jan. 1989, doi: 10.1001/jama.1989.03420020120042.

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