- The Notorious Dr. Flippin: Abortion and Consequence in the Early Twentieth Century by Jamie Q. Tallman
The Flexner Report of 1910 represented the culmination of the movement to professionalize medicine that had begun with the establishment of the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1847. This movement, which was dominated by white male physicians from major US cities, involved the “purification” of the field through the elimination of “irregular” practitioners who were in direct competition with mainstream providers. Many [End Page 142] African American doctors were swept along with this reform movement to expunge sectarian healers from health-care provision. In fact, “claiming that black MDs were inherently ‘dangerous,’ [Flexner] recommended that they operate under the supervision of whites and that their practice should be limited to the care of other blacks” (xv).
The criminalization of abortion became an additional rallying point for the growing medical profession during this time. The AMA argued that pregnancy termination should come under the scrutiny of allopathic physicians not only to “protect” women from untrained “quacks” but also to force “unsavory characters” out of business, thereby bringing the procedure under the regulation of the medical profession. After the Civil War, abortion was gradually criminalized in the United States, and the only way a woman could legally terminate a pregnancy was to qualify for a hospital-administered therapeutic abortion—a demeaning process that involved convincing medical experts that continuing the pregnancy to full term would endanger the mental and/or physical health of the parturient.
Consequently, extralegal abortion services flourished, and while historians know a great deal about white physicians operating in large cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, DC, very little is known about abortion providers of color and virtually nothing about those who practiced in rural areas, which is what renders this study of Dr. Flippin, who practiced in rural Kansas and Nebraska, so compelling.
Tallman enriches the literature on these extralegal abortion providers by illuminating the world of one of these physicians, Dr. Charles A. Flippin, who practiced an illegal trade in a white world, and on white women, and did so at a time before integration and the civil rights movement. Though born into slavery in Kentucky in 1844, Flippin used his “intelligence, skill, personal charisma, and political savvy … [to bring] him to such an unusual and lofty place” (xiii). Flippin became an admired leader in his rural Kansas and Nebraska communities who provided women from all racial, social, class, and marital backgrounds with a much-needed service over a thirty-year period. His rapport with local immigrants, newspaper editors, and black Republicans allowed him to elude criticism concerning his marriages to much younger white women (Flippin himself was biracial). Moreover, his important social status also legitimated his conspicuous consumption and political aspirations—both of which could have led to his lynching in other parts of the country.
As Tallman elucidates, Flippin’s world began to crumble with the Flexner Report, which renewed the drive to eliminate all “irregular” practitioners, including people of color, like Flippin, operating outside of mainstream medicine. As an extralegal abortion provider and member of the Eclectic medical sect, he posed a challenge to allopathic physicians. Thus, he was targeted by “regular” mainstream physicians who envied his success and by the American legal system, which, driven by the Comstockery of the time, sought to enforce its regulations, especially those concerning reproduction. [End Page 143]
Throughout the work, Tallman maintains that “the story of Dr. Flippin runs parallel to the treatment of African American doctors on the larger national stage,” especially in terms of the ways in which “racism, sexism, [and] vitriolic politics … all conspired” to discredit the abortion provider (xiii). Flippin’s tale is particularly salient for the ways in which it “conveys important insights about the progress of African American doctors and about the evolution of American medicine itself” (xiii). As Tallman asserts, Flippin’s downfall was hastened by numerous social factors, including concerns over black male sexual desire for white...