Much has been written about medicine and experimentation on enslaved people, most recently for example the 19th century surgeon J. Marion Sims, who developed a new gynecological technique via experiments in 1840s Alabama on enslaved women. This talk examines the history of, and fears about, enslaved people practicing medicine on their white masters, nursing their children, and also victimizing their masters through poisoning. The talk raises broad questions of enslavement, identity, knowledge, premeditation, and victimization, through the lens of one case – a teenage enslaved girl in 1850s Tennessee, commanded to nurse her owner’s child, and facing a court trial for the child’s murder by administering a fatal dose of medicine. Holding up this case next to the Sims saga, the talk offers insights on drugs and slave knowledge, on the role of medicine and the law in establishing hierarchies of race, fame, knowledge, and blame, and on the case’s implications for race, medicine, and law into the present.
Keith Wailoo, Henry Putnam University Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University