Samuel A. Cartwright was a very creative physician who worked in Lousiana, south of the United States, in the mid-nineteen century and contributed with both Cholera and Yellow Fever treatments. Often called by landowners to examine sick slaves, he coined some medical terms that, as many others in medicine, ran into oblivion. Who would know, today, what could be drapetomania? And dysaethesia aethiopica?
He learnt in important medicine schools and worked with other famous physicians. But, albeit his humanistic formation, he was a slavery supporter. It’s important to notice, however, that slavery was no crime back then. Having a position for slavery was more about defending a production method than a humanist cause, unbelievable as it may seem today. Draptomania (from the greek drapetes, slave) was a word created to name a strange psychiatric disorder that afflicted slaves at the time: an unresistable and unexplainable drive to flee from their masters! Dysaethesia aethiopica (from dysaesthesia = alteration of sensitivity, and aethiop = negroid), a syndrome “described” in 1851, was also a mental disorder, proposed to explain the laziness and lack of will to work, very common among slaves and with clearly contagious characteristics! Found exclusively in blacks, was a type of skin insensitivity that compromised the mental faculties. Given its “physiopathology”, it was “cured” with ointments on the skin, followed by whipping as to stimulate cutaneous sensitivity. Pretty much the same treatment was applied to drapetomania. Apparentely with certain success.
There are at least two sides to this story: first, realise there is some blame on the doctor’s part. A certain mix of malevolence with incomprehension, still seen frequently nowadays, that would justify its actions to himself and to his peers. Here we are facing another human imprudence and the discussion ends. There is, however, a much more cruel and perverse way of understanding the story. What if we abstract our current world view and transport ourselves to the south of North America in the XIX century? Whilst trying to understand the world and Cartwright’s evidences, we could think he, in fact, didn’t do any of this for any particular hate or despise to black people. We could understand that he did so just by following the current logical and scientific presets, characteristical of the style of thinking of his time and place. Today his findings belong to the worst pseudoscience and “scientific” racism. But, back then, his diagnoses were discussed in clinical meetings!
The ghost os Samuel Cartweight should haunt doctors and medicine today. It would be useful remembering doctors that the medical practice remains and will remain, notwithstanding the evolution of scientific knowledge. That we of now may be regarded as ridiculous for someone in the future trying to understand our doubts. That we are not different of the society in which we work, and that this provokes immense black holes when we need to think about our own acts. That science is a partner and not master of our actions. I would indeed like question this ghost. I would ask the ghost of Samuel Cartwright — which is transcendent in time and space, how burlesque and pathetic are my current good intentions? Which of my attitudes will pass to history as examples of grotesque and irrational?
I sincerely hope that the ghost of Samuel Cartwright will not appear suddenly, in an afternoon, after several and extenuating consultations, in the mirror of my office.