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

In 1851, Dr. Samuel Cartwright of Louisiana presented a paper to the Medical Convention of that state. The same year, DeBow’s Review reprinted it for a much wider audience. Therein, Cartwright explained that black people had two mental illnesses unique to their species which accounted for their apparent resistance to slavery by means of running away and more passive methods like breaking tools, sabotaging crops, working as slowly as they could, and so forth.

In 2013, a friend of mine suggested I write something about the mental health of slaves. Drapetomania, one of Cartwright’s mental illnesses came to mind immediately. I tracked down the original paper, as reprinted in DeBow’s, and decided to do a short series on it. I quickly realized that Cartwright’s position went beyond simply calling slaves sick. He had, in a limited way, tried to make a scientific argument. It would make little sense to focus on the two diseases he invented in isolation. So I dug into a project I privately called Climbing Mount Cartwright. Now that everything is available to the public, and since the series grew quite a bit longer than expected, it’s past time for some help navigating it.

The Diseased and Peculiar Science of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright


Some context and thoughts about why slaveholders required explanations like Cartwright’s.


Background on Cartwright’s education and the basic definitions of the maladies, with a comment on mental health.

On Species

The position that different races of people constituted different species and its place in nineteenth century biology.


Why Cartwright believed polygenism, focusing on the hardness of bones.

More Peculiarities

More about why Cartwright believed polygenism, focusing on the shapes of bones actually caused by rickets, malnutrition, and heavy physical labor.

Peculiar Brains

Cartwright’s position on the size of the brains and arrangement of the nervous system of black people, relying on the German naturalist Soemmerring.

Peculiar Blood

Cartwright’s novel position that black people suffered a lack of oxygen to the brain, based on anecdotal observation, and its effects. He actually describes some combination of malnutrition and exhaustion.

Tiedemann on Brains

A naturalist working fifteen years before Cartwright demolishes his authority on brain size with solid science…

Tiedemann on Nerves

…and does the same for the general arrangement of the nervous system, leaving the scientific basis for Cartwright’s position entirely void even by period standards.


Cartwright’s first novel diagnosis taken in a bit more depth.

Dysaethesia Aethiopica

Cartwright’s second novel diagnosis.

Primary Sources

Cartwright’s paper in DeBow’s Review, published in three parts with a fourth containing responses to critics. I have not found the full text anywhere online by itself, but the parts are on pages 64, 209, 331 and the response to critics on 504. Tiedemann’s paper is available as a PDF.

As I said when I began the project, it is the work of a layperson. I welcome any constructive criticism, especially if I’ve gotten something wrong on the science.

Your input is welcome

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