There is a reason why African-Americans do not like to go to their doctors or even to hospital. Many fear that they will be probed, prodded, and experimented upon without their consent, and return home sicker than when they left – or may not return home at all. It is because throughout their long history in the USA, African-Americans have been secretly used as guinea pigs for medical experimentation by various American governments. Leslie Goffe reports from Washington DC.
The fear that the us government and medical authorities had been engaged in what has been called a “dark history” of medical experimentation on African-Americans is supported by the release over the past several years of once-secret US government documents showing how, from slavery until today, African-Americans have been America’s favourite guinea pig.
During slavery days, when they were recognised in law as only three-fifths of a man, African-Americans were thrown into burning hot pits by white physicians seeking a cure for sunstroke and had boiling water poured on them by white doctors determined to develop a cure for typhoid and pneumonia.
Free to use and abuse African-Americans as they pleased, white surgeons cracked open and probed the brains of black children and operated on the genitals of enslaved black women, all without anaesthetics. One white physician even pressed hot pokers onto the legs and arms of enslaved African-Americans to discover “how deep black skin was.”
Reluctant to inflict such horrors on their fellow whites, white physicians and medical researchers found in enslaved African-Americans the perfect substitute. “It was said that blacks didn’t experience pain, that they were immune to diseases like malaria and heat sickness that made it impossible for whites to work in the field,” says Harriet Washington, an African-American, and author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.
Slavery, Washington writes, probably “couldn’t have persisted without the physicians who said blacks were inferior and made by the creator to be the workhorses of the white man.” The exploitation of African-Americans for medical research did not end with slavery. It continued long afterwards.