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

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

(Previous in the series: IntroductionOverviewOn Species, Peculiarities, More Peculiarities, Peculiar Brains. Full text of Cartwright’s paper can be found here in three parts on pages 64, 209, 331 and with a response to critics on page 504.)

We left off with Soemmerring’s measurements of brain size and nervous system arrangement, which Cartwright used as the keystone of his position that the separate species of black people had fundamentally different consciousnesses and needs that predisposed them to all manner of vice from which slavery uplifted them. But those unfortunates, so saddled with small brains, likewise fell prey to madness that made them run away from slavery (Drapetomania) or to resist it by means of poor work ethic (Dysaethesia Aethiopica). These maladies did not afflict whites as they arose from the peculiarities of the black person’s nervous system.

Cartwright did not draw an entirely straight line from smaller brains and denser nerves elsewhere to the behavior he sought to explain. He added one other variable:

The great development of the nervous system, and the profuse distribution of nervous matter to the stomach, liver, and genital organs, would make the Ehtiopian race entirely unmanageable, if it were not that this excessive nervous development is associated with a deficiency of red blood in the pulmonary and arterial systems, from a defective atmospherization or arterialization of the blood in the lungs-constituting the best type of what is called the lymphatic temperament, in which lymph, phlegm, mucus, and other humors predominate over the red blood.

In other words, the brain does not get enough oxygen to work properly. This brings about:

indolence and apathy, and why they have chosen, through countless ages, idleness, misery, and barbarian to industry and frugality-why social industry, or associated labor, so essential to all progress in civilization and improvement, has never made any progress among them, or the arts and sciences taken root in any portion of the African soil inhabited by them; as proved by the fact that no letters, or even hieroglyphics-no buildings, roads or improvements, or monuments of any kind, are anywhere found, to indicate that they have ever been awakened from their apathy and sleepy indolence to physical or mental exertion. To the same physiological causes, deeply rooted in the organization, we must look for an explanation of the strange facts […] -why no form of government on abstract principles, with divisions of power into separate departments, has ever been instituted by them? -why they have always preferred, as more congenial to their nature, a government combining the legislative, judicial, and executive powers in the same individual, in the person of a petty king, a chieftain, or master? -why, in America, if left alone, they always prefer the same kind of government which we call slavery?

As a person who does not always take the best care of himself, I can tell you that missing a few meals or not eating enough of the right sort of foods to keep you going leaves one rather apathetic and sleepy too. One need not starve to feel the effects and once one is feeling unusually sleepy and apathetic one does not think at one’s best and necessarily remember and draw the proper conclusion that one ought to eat something. I know that I have not.

Cartwright does not blame malnutrition, however. He holds that the small brains of black people predispose them to breathing bad air which we would say lacks sufficient oxygen. How does he establish this? He made some observations:

This is proved by the fact of the universal practice among them of covering their head and faces, during sleep, with a blanket, or any kind of covering they can get ahold of. If they have only a part of a blanket, they will cover their faces when about to go to sleep. If they have no covering, they will throw their hands or arms across the mouth and nose, and turn on their faces, as with an instinctive design to obstruct the entrance of the free air into the lungs during sleep.

Certainly too much carbon dioxide breathed back in at the expense of fresh oxygen does a body no good. But Cartwright tells us about a universal practice without quoting any figures. We have no numbers for how many black people slept like this, either in his Louisiana or in Africa where he insists the resulting disorders reach their worst extent.  Cartwright knows that no such studies yet existed, confessing that the fact “has heretofore escaped the attention of the scientific world.”

He could have done one himself and we might today call this Cartwright’s Syndrome. Instead the doctor insists we take him at his word that all black people do this and he knows because, well, we just have to trust him. Good science requires representative samples of a population, not one man’s say-so. I raise this point because the same problem occurs in those brain measurements on which Cartwright rests so much. More on those tomorrow.


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