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  • Secret Cures of Slaves by Londa Schiebinger
  • Sarah Schuetze (bio)
Secret Cures of Slaves londa schiebinger Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017 234 pp.

Secret Cures of Slaves, Londa Schiebinger's latest contribution to early American history of science and the environment, operates at the place where disciplinary methods intersect—where the origin story and the experiment meet. In investigating the history of medical experiments on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century West Indian colonial plantations, Schiebinger enters into an experiment herself. She frames Secret Cures of Slaves by presenting her thinking as phases resembling the steps of scientific experimentation involving observation, hypothesis, data collection and application, assessment, and testing and revising the original hypothesis.

In her experiment, Schiebinger explores and negotiates the origins of people groups, plants, ideas, medical treatments, and their legacy with her own expectations for them. In doing so, she discovers a multivalent history of British and French colonial medical experimentation in the Caribbean that was certainly racialized but also shaped by politics, economics, European medicine, and ethnic and folk practices. Because this history had multiple influences and occurred in geographically diverse places, Schiebinger describes it as a network of systems she terms the "Atlantic world medical complex." And this network was not anomalous. In fact, Schiebinger attributes the origins of her Atlantic world medical complex to historian Philip Curtin's notion of the "plantation complex" wherein the plantation slave system in the West Indies was also an assemblage of competing systems and locales. Within Schiebinger's complex, enslaved black people on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century plantations could influence colonial medicine and use it to subvert power of masters and colonial doctors and foster cultural heritage.

In the introduction to Secret Cures of Slaves, Schiebinger describes her expectation of finding some version of an origin story for the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the archive of West Indian colonial medicine. In 1979, the Belmont Report articulated the ethical standards for using human subjects in research as a response to the exploitative nature of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study led by the US Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972. The Tuskegee experiment targeted vulnerable groups in Alabama, in particular [End Page 1009] six hundred poor African Americans. Nearly four hundred of the African American subjects with syphilis were left untreated for forty years so the researchers could study the progress of their infections. While the subjects consented to participate in the study, researchers withheld facts about their diagnosis and treatability of their disease and perpetrated a medical injustice against them.

Schiebinger hypothesizes that the roots of medical experiments based on exploited, vulnerable groups—the Tuskegee study being the pinnacle example—could be found in the archive of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medical experimentation in the French and British West Indies. Because Caribbean planation slavery relied upon the dehumanization and exploitation of a large population of enslaved black people, it stood to reason that this disenfranchised population would also be used unquestioningly to test new therapies. As Schiebinger notes, Todd Savitt, historian of slave medicine, has shown that southern doctors tested treatments on enslaved black people mercilessly, especially in the nineteenth century. Most famous was J. Marion Sims and his gynecological surgical experiments on enslaved black women that did not include anesthesia. Schiebinger also believed that she would encounter more of the same in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the West Indies because this was a time when "a culture of experimentalism" emerged: plantations were growing, the medical profession was evolving toward experimentation and publication, and the Caribbean was a prime location for European "bio-prospecting" (4). Bioprospecting, or speculating for plants with possible medical and other valuable uses, was the focus of Schiebinger's earlier and seminal book Plants and Empire (Harvard UP, 2007). Additionally, in this time and place, doctors, masters, and slaves constantly struggled with the prevalence of yaws among enslaved people. Yaws is a tropical infection disease that causes swellings, lesions, ulcers, and pain in the skin and bones, particularly affecting the hands and feet. It is a close relative of syphilis and was once believed to be a venereal disease, so the medical history of yaws is tied to the medical history...


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