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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Chimborazo, Pellagra, and Hoodoo Doctors: Health in the Antebellum and Early Modern South

By Philip C. Kolin


In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This special issue on health in the antebellum and early modern South covers a wide range of topics affecting diverse groups of Southerners over many centuries. Contributors explore subjects ranging from Civil War environmental warfare to stereotypes of “Negro medicine” to training doctors and nurses to Southern vs. Northern hospitals and clinics to unconventional healthcare practices. Regardless of contributors’ methodology, though, this issue inexorably acknowledges the connection between healthcare and Southern culture, and how one influenced the other.

In the lead essay, distinguished medical historian Dr. Margaret Humphreys investigates the relationships of Southern landscapes and climate to the health of Civil War combatants. As she observes, “It’s not an exaggeration to say Civil War doctors saw all diseases as due to a malignant environment” and insists that “If doctors [could] manipulate the environment to promote health, they [can] equally use their knowledge to create a killing field.” Humphreys documents various ways the war enabled physicians on both sides to manipulate the environment, whether for good or ill. It was no secret that the antebellum South was plagued by a disease environment that fostered malaria and yellow fever and that Southerners turned this environment to their military advantage to help kill Yankee invaders. As Humphreys shows, though, public health efforts and quinine unquestionably helped the North to neutralize the “South’s deadly ecosystems.”

Historians of nursing care Ann Kutney-Lee and Barbara Mann Wall, along with Kathleen Rogers, compare and contrast Union and Confederate [End Page 6] hospitals, primarily through records of patient outcomes, an area that, unfortunately, has not been sufficiently researched. Interweaving social, medical, nursing, and religious history, Wall, Kutney-Lee, and Rogers focus on selected hospitals in the North and South, primarily Satterlee in Philadelphia and Chimborazo in Richmond, to identify the reasons for such a wide variation in patient outcomes. Among the main causes, they argue, were the locations of hospitals, patient acuity, availability of resources and supplies, and, of course, the role that nurses played in patient recovery. Drawing upon the records of the Daughters of Charity, a Roman Catholic religious community, as their primary group of nurses, Wall, Kutney-Lee, and Rogers find that the sisters worked in both Union and Confederate hospitals, and because of their exceptional training and experience, they were among the most qualified and dedicated nurses in the war, even countermanding inefficient doctors’ orders.

The following two essays turn to healthcare and enslavement. Marie Jenkins Schwartz researches the health of slave children by examining documents from slaveholders (plantation records and correspondence) and the slaves themselves (WPA narratives) to understand why children’s health was neglected on antebellum plantations. Schwartz points out that high rates of injuries and mortality among enslaved children worried slaveholders because they threatened the Southern way of life. Yet it is crucial to remember, as Schwartz argues, that since the US had ended its participation in the international slave trade in 1808, the only way for slavery to continue was to insure that enough enslaved children survived to replace older slaves who died each year. Unwilling to acknowledge their culpability, slaveholders actually created the conditions that put these children at risk and, falling into stereotyping, blamed parents and other caregivers for making childhood “the least healthy time of a slave’s life.” Schwartz concludes, “Simply put, the slaveholder’s desire to care for children was tempered by a desire for profit.” Her study adds to our understanding of why and how the Southern healthcare system led to such dreadful outcomes for enslaved people.

Also shedding light on healthcare and slavery, Stephen Kenny uses the career of a country doctor, Henry Ramsay from Georgia, to interrogate and exemplify the thoroughly racist nature of medical training, research, and practice in the antebellum South. Like the majority of his Southern physician peers, Ramsay took advantage of a growing number of a professional career opportunities presented by so-called “Negro medicine.” Even though Ramsay left no personal papers, Kenny maintains that his published essays and short-lived medical periodical, The Georgia Blister and Critic, nonetheless constitute a convincing body of evidence about “Negro medicine...

From: muse.jhu.edu

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