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  • Running Away from Drapetomania:Samuel A. Cartwright, Medicine, and Race in the Antebellum South
  • Christopher D. E. Willoughby (bio)

In 1940, Mary Louise Marshall, then the librarian of Tulane University's Matas Medical Library, wrote an article that has shaped the historical understanding of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright. Though Cartwright was a prominent physician and medical writer in antebellum New Orleans, historians mostly remember him for his theories of drapetomania—the disease that caused slaves to run away; rascality—the disease that made slaves commit petty offenses; and dysaesthesia ethiopica—which made slaves "insensible and indifferent to punishment."1 Published in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, Marshall's biography of the southern physician seeded the ground for a mythology of Cartwright that has helped define him in the historiography of race and medicine. According to Marshall, Cartwright studied under the country's most famous doctor, founding father Benjamin Rush, first as an apprentice and then at the University of Pennsylvania, but never completed the degree. With this pedigree, Cartwright appeared to be on the path to becoming a leading physician in the United States. Marshall explained that later in his career Cartwright served as "Professor of Diseases of the Negro" in the [End Page 579] Medical Department of the University of Louisiana (now Tulane University).2

The fact is that no record exists of Cartwright at the University of Pennsylvania, which means he certainly never received a degree from that institution.3 Likewise, Rush died in 1813, and Cartwright, according to Marshall, supposedly apprenticed for Rush before he began attending lectures at the University of Pennsylvania but after serving in the War of 1812. This chain of events would have been nearly impossible. Finally, obituaries of Cartwright never mentioned any connection to the most famous doctor in early America.4 Despite being an unabashed self-promoter, Cartwright never explicitly linked himself to Rush. In fact, Cartwright graduated from medical school at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1823. Throughout his career, Cartwright maintained contact with his former professors such as Charles Caldwell, an early commenter on the supposed anatomical "peculiarities" of black bodies that Cartwright became famous [End Page 580] for enumerating.5 Likewise, Cartwright was never on the faculty at the Medical Department of the University of Louisiana. While Cartwright recommended that "a chair devoted to the diseases of negroes" should be created in southern medical schools, there is no evidence that any university followed through on this idea.6

Since 1940, many historians have repeated portions of Marshall's article, either directly or through multiple layers of citation. The development of Cartwright's story highlights how historical memory gets shaped, with scholars potentially and unknowingly building on outdated and factually suspect histories such as Marshall's. In these narratives, Cartwright acts as a prominent—even if at times eccentric—figure in the southern medical profession. Marshall's biography of Cartwright fit within larger analytical trends in southern history before World War II, depicting white southerners as misunderstood and wronged by the Civil War. In this model, the South, more so than any other region, was most directly related to the founding ideal of the United States as an agrarian [End Page 581] republic.7 Marshall's narrative also points to how historical memory has shaped notions of antebellum white southerners such as Cartwright as distinctive in their approach to race.8 In spite of the continued influence of Marshall's essay, a reexamination of Cartwright and his reception outside the South uncovers the extent to which racial medicine had become a part of a broader medical discourse in the United States and the Atlantic world.

Broadening Cartwright's sphere of influence beyond just southerners reveals significant analytical problems in utilizing a regional frame to understand scientific ideologies of race. While Cartwright's slave diseases were in some respects exceptional, even perhaps distinctly southern, his broader vision of race fit within larger trends among American and Atlantic world physicians. Even though Cartwright did enunciate a southern nationalism on occasion, just as often he used regional boosterism as a means of obtaining greater prestige for himself and other southern physicians in national and...