March 17th, 1851

Scientist Discovers "Drapetomania"

In December 1849, the Louisiana State Medical Convention selected Southern physician and pro-slavery advocate Samuel Cartwright to chair a committee tasked with investigating and reporting on diseases unique to African Americans. In March 1851, at the annual meeting of the Louisiana Medical Association, Dr. Cartwright presented a report of the committee's findings entitled, "A Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race." In the report, Dr. Cartwright claimed blacks were very different physiologically from whites, possessing smaller brains, more sensitive skin, and overdeveloped nervous systems. These unique traits, he claimed, gave black people an especially high propensity for servitude.

Citing "scientific" evidence and scripture, Dr. Cartwright argued that "the Negro is a slave by nature and can never be happy . . . in any other condition." He invented the term Drapetomania, derived from the Greek words for "runaway slave" and "crazy," to describe a curable mental disease. When infected, he claimed, enslaved black people were struck with an urge to flee bondage and seek freedom. Dr. Cartwright explained the disease as a mental affliction triggered by masters who unwisely treat their slaves as equals and prescribed severe whipping and amputation of the toes as cures. Couched in pseudo-science and presented as medical assertions, Dr. Cartwright's report was an effort to justify and defend the institution of slavery as natural and optimal for both master and slave.