- Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation by Gretchen Long
In Doctoring Freedom, Gretchen Long investigates African American health and medicine from the late antebellum period through 1910. For [End Page 601] Long, health and medicine encompass a range of subjects from antebellum medical care on southern plantations, to freedpeople’s health conditions during the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the rise of black medical benevolent associations and even the professional status of black physicians. Long excavates a wide-ranging number of sources from novels and autobiographies to federal records and manuscript collections.
Building on Todd Savitt’s and Sharla Fett’s research on this subject, Long contributes to the historiography by offering sharp and fresh insights into the meaning of sickness on plantations. She describes how enslaved people and slaveholders defined illness as well as how southern medical journals commented on enslaved people’s health. Some of Long’s strongest and most compelling insights can be found in her interpretations of these journal articles and in her keen assessment of the medical interaction between planters and enslaved people. The book’s strengths lie in Long’s interpretation of the sources. Throughout Doctoring Freedom, she gives voice to the formerly enslaved, the emancipated, and the freed black populations who struggled to obtain adequate health care throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Long carefully explains how the social transitions that unfolded during Reconstruction undermined black doctors’ medical authority. She focuses on three doctors who had very different experiences and training but who all found themselves displaced as physicians in the aftermath of the Civil War. John Donalson of Austin, Texas, had worked as a healer throughout the antebellum period, but because of changing notions of medical care in the mid-nineteenth century, the federal government under the aegis of the Freedmen’s Bureau disregarded his work as superstitious and ineffective. Bureau doctors, therefore, systematically discouraged black patients from paying him. Donalson fi led letters of complaint against the federal government regarding his lack of payment and the bureau’s opposition to his medical practice, and Long uses these letters to bring Donalson to life.
Long uncovers the story of another black doctor, Moses Camplin, who practiced in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1866, in a letter of complaint he wrote to the Freedmen’s Bureau. Camplin “studied and practiced medicine without molestation” while he worked as a “servant” under his owner, a noted physician in Charleston (120). After the war, though, municipal authorities refused to allow the doctor to sign death certificates, questioning his training and claiming that he did not have a proper medical license. Camplin responded by arguing that his training and expertise were comparable to those of white doctors in Charleston. [End Page 602]
Long’s recovery of these two doctors points to an often neglected and little-studied topic: the experiences of black male physicians before the rise of the American Medical Association and later the National Medical Association. Long deserves credit for uncovering the history of doctors who were not formally registered with a professional society and who enter the historical record only in moments of conflict and contestation, and this is where the third doctor of Long’s study enters—Alexander Augusta. Unlike Camplin and Donalson, Augusta was formally trained as a physician; and his work as a doctor has been well documented in a handful of histories about Reconstruction. Augusta treated freedpeople in the postwar period in Camp Barker, which later became Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Like Camplin and Donalson, Augusta suffered from racism. While serving in the army, white military doctors refused to serve under him. When Augusta petitioned against these complaints, he was simply transferred to another location. After the war, he continued to confront racism and tirelessly lobbied the American Medical Association to admit black doctors. Long’s treatment of the three black doctors featured in her study makes good use of the available sources and is a...