Bodies of Knowledge: The Influence of Slaves on the Antebellum Medical Community


Sarah Mitchell Cotton

Master's Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Virginia Tech in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

Master of Arts




Kathleen W. Jones, Chair
Beverly Bunch-Lyons
Crandall Shifflett

May 2, 1997
Blacksburg, Virginia


Bodies of Knowledge: The Influence of Slaves on the Antebellum Medical Community

Sarah Mitchell Cotton


The influence of slaves on the south is well documented in areas such as agriculture, music, diet, religion and language. This thesis extends the list to include medicine. It also suggests that the importance of cultural transfer to America from places other than Europe has been overlooked in the history of medicine. The medical influence of slaves took the form of botanical remedies, many of them with an African origin, and were disseminated through the treatments of slave healers. Slave medical knowledge offered a viable alternative for whites to both nineteenth-century "heroic" practices and to alternative methods, such as homeopathy and Thomsonianism. In addition, the slave's body itself was a vehicle of medical influence. Informed by nineteenth-century beliefs about the differences between whites and blacks, antebellum physicians performed experiments upon slave bodies that they could not and did not perform on whites'. Transfer of slave medical knowledge was facilitated by personal contact between individuals, by the publicity surrounding slaves who were set free for revealing cures, through the services of slave healers, through newspapers and medical journals in which whites wrote of slave treatments and acknowledged the source of the information, and through word of mouth. This study uses the theme of ambivalence to reconcile the conflicting attitudes of southern physicians and slaveowners towards slave medical knowledge.

List of attached files

File NameSize (Bytes)
CH1.PDF59,531 Bytes
CH2.PDF74,769 Bytes
CH3.PDF75,451 Bytes
CONCL.PDF46,765 Bytes
INTRO.PDF69,042 Bytes
SOURCES.PDF126,929 Bytes
THANKS.PDF2,787 Bytes
TITLE.PDF1,795 Bytes
VITA.PDF9,504 Bytes

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