The Diseased and Peculiar Science of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright (Overview)

Yesterday I set up some context for Cartwright’s work. Today I want to give a bit more context about the man himself and then a basic outline of his ideas.

Samuel A. Cartwright, MD

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel Adolphus Cartwright (1793-1863), a Virginia-born, Philadelphia-trained former army surgeon (He served for a time with Andrew Jackson’s army.) who practiced in Alabama, Mississippi, and then finally New Orleans had some mental health credentials. He studied under founding father Benjamin Rush, one of the pioneers of occupational therapy.

Before Rush, people who had serious mental problems often got chained to walls in dungeons and forgotten. He showed that gentler treatment could bring better results. With such a teacher, one cannot simply dismiss Cartwright as an entirely ignorant crank. Nor, for that matter, did he go to some kind of explicitly proslavery diploma mill for his medical credentials. Cartwright the proslavery doctor studied under Rush the abolitionist, though at one point Rush did buy and keep a slave of his own. (Rush contributed his own chapter to the shameful history of racial pseudoscience, which I may write about in the future.) Furthermore he studied in the same Philadelphia from which Ona Judge absconded, with its large free black community.

Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush

Cartwright had a proper medical education, by nineteenth century standards. Far from a hothouse flower that couldn’t withstand a contrary view, the man trained under an abolitionist. He had lived in a free state in a city with a large free black community, though he ultimately opted to settle in the Deep South. Believing slavery the natural and beneficial state for the black person, he faced the challenge to that position presented by runaways and other forms of resistance to slavery head on like a good scientist ought to.

To explain why slaves did not behave in a properly devoted manner for their white benefactors, Cartwright invented two new mental illnesses: Drapetomania and Dysaethesia Aethiopica. Drapetomania prompted slaves to run away. Dysaethesia Aethiopica explained their apparent lack of a work ethic. Setting aside for the moment Cartwright’s specific diagnoses, the claim that mental illness can prompt unusual, even self-destructive, behaviors hardly needs justification.  Those behaviors form key diagnostic criteria for mental illness in Cartwright’s time and in our own. We can now add to them various imbalances of neurotransmitters and structural abnormalities in the brain, but as we do not run MRIs on everybody the search for those other traits generally springs from abnormal behavior.

This bears some clarifying. One of the greatest obstacles that people with mental health problems have to getting help and learning how to cope, adjust, and improve their lives is the social stigma that comes with mental illness. Having a diagnosis can imply that one has not just a problem but also a kind of moral defect. Much of our conventional language for talking about mental health contributes. When I say “abnormal” I mean the word exclusively in the statistical sense, not as a value judgment. While mental health naturally focuses on the abnormalities that impede our ability to function as others do in daily life, having great intellectual or artistic ability also constitutes an abnormality. Most people lack those abilities and the traits of most people define the norm.

Back to Cartwright. If slaves running away and lacking work ethic amount to mental illness, should we not expect the same illnesses in white people? We should not, per Cartwright. The ailments did not afflict white people because they derived ultimately from the different anatomy of an entirely separate and distinct species: black people. The peculiarities thus gave rise to the diseases in Cartwright’s title.

One comment on “The Diseased and Peculiar Science of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright (Overview)

  1. Nyola Clarke says:

    Understand the mentality

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