When Betty Dopson, a friend who was the communications director for Harlem Hospital, asked me to write a 3,000-word essay on the hospital, I eagerly accepted. Harlem Hospital at that time (1987) was the most widely known public hospital in North America. The occasion for the essay was the celebration of the medical institution’s 100th anniversary. As a journalist and a history buff, it was an opportunity that I couldn’t resist. What I didn’t know was the ugly truth about the medical profession in this country which emerged when doing research.
What got me started was an observation credited to Dr. W. Montague Cobb, a medical historian, anthropologist and emeritus professor of anatomy at Howard University. Dr. Cobb stated that “Negro patients in countless numbers had served to advance the cause of medical science through their reactions to new and little applied therapeutic measures. The use of the Negro patient for experimentation and the development of surgical procedures and techniques rest on traditions that began with the advent of chattel slavery in America in 1619.”
For instance, in his book, “Sins of the Fathers: A Study of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1441-1807,” James Pope-Hennessy wrote that once the African captives were put ashore, the slave traders began earnestly selling moribund or “refuse” Africans at public auctions to, among others, surgeons to be used for medical experimentations.
Henry Irving Tragle, in his book, “SouthHampton Slave Revolt: A Compilation of Source Materials,” noted, “In the circulator of the South Carolina medical school for that year (1831) I find this remarkable suggestion: ‘Some advantages of a peculiar character are connected with this institution. No place in the United States affords so great opportunities for the questions of medical knowledge, subjects being obtained among the colored population in sufficient numbers for every purpose and proper dissection carried on without offending an individual …”
Dr. Francis Cress Welsing once said that concerned and aware Black people were very disturbed by “Repeated attempts to imply that African people are the source responsible of this deadly virus (AIDS) and for its spread throughout the world. … Aware Black people are knowledgeable about the long-standing Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments which were conducted for a period of forty years (1932-1972) on unsuspecting Black men and their families.” All of the above information is included in my book “The Harlem Hospital Story: 100 Years of Struggle Against Illness and Racism.”
It is not surprising that this insidious history has led many Black people to be wary of the medical profession in the country. Therefore it is very important for Black individuals and Black institutions in this field to organize a national health-focused organization that will provide important information and guidance to Black folks when it comes to health issues. On another level, Black people, when a family member or friend is hospitalized, must make sure to the institution that the patient has very alert and determined backup to show that he or she is not alone.