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

(Previous in the series: IntroductionOverviewOn Species, Peculiarities, More Peculiarities. 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.)

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

We left Cartwright after having weighed his claims about the skeletons of black people. Those differences would matter, had they withstood scrutiny. They instead told a story of the physical cost of slavery. But Cartwright’s thesis rests less on physical differences between black and white and more on mental differences. He insisted, after all, that black people resisted and ran from slavery due to mental illnesses, Dysaethesia Aethiopica and Drapetomania, respectively. Facts about skeletal arrangement might support his position that black and white made two species, but the key peculiarities for Cartwright’s position reside above the neck:

According to Soemmerring and other anatomists, who have dissected the negro, his brain is a ninth or tenth less than in other races, his facial angle smaller, and all the nerves going from the brain, as also the ganglionic system of nerves, are large in proportion than in the white man. […] Soemmering remarks, that the negro’s brain has in a great measure run into nerves.

In Cartwright’s time as in our own, if not to the same degree or in the same way, biology understood that brains at the very least had a great deal to do with minds. If black people truly had smaller brains and a different ratio of neurons in the central nervous system vs. the peripheral nervous system, one would expect mental differences. Different species do in fact have different arrangements of neurons. Cephalopods have something like the distributed nervous system that Soemmering, per Cartwright, assigned to black people so we can at least say he hasn’t asserted a natural impossibility.

The arrangement of the nervous system, like the arrangement of the skeleton, does not leave much room for speculation. Dissection, as Cartwright notes, would reveal the differences to anybody and settle the matter at once. Soemmerring did the dissection.

Cartwright goes on to say

His [a black person’s] imitative powers are very great, and he can agitate every part of the body at the same time, or what he calls dancing all over. [Italics in original.] From the diffusion of the brain, as it were, into the various organs of the body, in the shape of nerves to minister to the senses, everything, from the necessity of such a conformation, partakes of sensuality, at the expense of intellectuality. Thus music is a mere sensual pleasure with the negro.

Cue the jokes about black people having rhythm that whites lack. I leave finding impressive dance performances by people of all races as an exercise to the reader. Cartwright made no such jokes, but continues

a deficiency of cerebral matter in the cranium, and an excess of nervous matter distributed to the organs of sensation and assimilation, that is the true cause of that debasement of the mind which has rendered the people of Africa unable to take care of themselves.

The conclusion follows from the premise: One would expect people with smaller brains and radically different nervous systems to, at the very least, have very different behavior. Cartwright rolls together his diagnosis and the position that slavery uplifts black people at the same time. They, the poor, unfortunate species, need us to help them take care of themselves and in exchange they help us by filling our pockets and generously provide us with a population we can beat, whip, mutilate, rape, and sell at will. Everyone “wins”.


Students Blogging Aquaponics

I have a friend who teaches science to junior high students in Hawaii. Years ago he won a grant for a hydroponics and aquaponics garden, on which he has spent many weekends and afternoons.

If you don’t know, hydroponics is the art of growing plants without conventional soil. Instead they take root in an inert medium that you feed with all the nutrients they need. Aquaponics goes more wild still, with the nutrients coming from a colony of fish that the gardener feeds. And they’re after him to try aeroponics (growing in just mist) too. They kids blog about it and he asked me to share. I can’t say no to that.

I plan to run my own hydroponic bucket (Tomatoes for my mother, Gentle Reader.) when we have a but more sunlight in the frozen north.

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

(Previous in the series: IntroductionOverviewOn Species, Peculiarities. 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.)

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

We last left Dr. Cartwright discussing how the bones of black people different from those of white people, contributing to his position that the two races constitute separate species. Having cited the greater hardness of the bones, which heavy labor would explain regardless of one’s race, and the supposed greater thickness of the skull for which Cartwright cited only an ancient authority of questionable accuracy working in an unrelated field, he still had more to say.

Going beyond composition of the skeleton and general posture, Cartwright makes more direct, empirical claims:

the thigh-bones [are] larger, and flattened from before backwards; the bones more bent; the legs curved outwards, or bowed; the feet flat; the gastrocnemii muscles so long, as to make the ankle appear as if planted in the middle of the foot; the gait, hopper-hipped […] not unlike that of a person carrying a burden

A lifetime of heavy labor would go a long way to explaining the flat feet. They can also come from illness and, while I cannot say this with an expert’s confidence, I imagine slaves did not as a whole receive the same quality of nutrition that white people, especially their white owners, got. Malnutrition weakens the body’s ability to fight off illness and hard labor invites injury, both known causes of flat feet.

X-Ray of a child with Rickets (Wikimedia Commons)

X-ray of a child with rickets (Wikimedia Commons)

For the rest, modern science does know a condition where the legs bow out and bones bend. To those symptoms we may add asymmetrical or odd-shaped skulls, bumps on the ribs, a pushed-forward breastbone, pelvic deformities, and abnormal curvature of the spine. Cartwright has found real peculiarities, but he blames on race the products of rickets. How does one acquire a case of rickets? Malnutrition, certain liver, kidney, and intestine diseases, and occasionally through bad genes. Just as with flat feet, we must point a finger at the realities of slavery.

Cartwright could not know that as no one knew the causes of rickets until the 1920s. But fairness does not obligate us to give him a pass on recognizing the disease when he saw it. Having such obvious symptoms made rickets a feature in medical literature dating back to antiquity. It received substantial attention beginning in the seventeenth century, two hundred years before Cartwright. Nor we can excuse Cartwright on the grounds that linguistic barriers kept him from the literature as rickets had the attention of the English medical community.

The Louisiana physician had perfectly good eyes. He saw the symptoms. He had a perfectly good education for his time. He should have recognized those symptoms. Medical science knew of rickets. He cannot claim ignorance. With these facts at hand, I cannot explain how he comes to see its fairly obvious symptoms as instead diagnostic traits of a separate species unless he had already concluded that black people amounted to a species apart on grounds unrelated to skeletal anatomy and went looking for evidence after the fact.

Cartwright would of course respond that he did not, in fact, rest his case on the skeletons. He had still more anatomical distinctions to cite.

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

(Previous in the series: Introduction, Overview, On Species. 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.)

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

Cartwright insisted that black people form a species apart from white people. That distinction did not, furthermore, end at the color of the skin. Nineteenth century biology, though in its infancy, still had enough sophistication to recognize different color morphs as distinctions within a species. They certainly didn’t succeed every time, but charity requires us to remember that they lacked the tools we take for granted.

So what did Cartwright work from, if not skin color? The next section of his paper makes for rather hard reading, but we can’t understand his position well enough to dispute it unless we learn how he arrived there.

Cartwright writes that a black person’s

bones are whiter and harder than those of the white race, owing to their containing more phosphate of lime and less gelatine.

Herodotus, ancient historian of great fame and questionable repute

Herodotus, ancient historian of great fame and questionable repute

One wonders what dissections Cartwright performed to make the comparison. In an addendum answering critics, he stated that simple comparative anatomy would resolve the matter but makes no mention of undertaking the experiment himself. Cartwright simply insists “naturalists universally agree,” despite not finding occasion to cite one as he does for his other claims, to naturalists who did not agree. Furthermore

Herodotus mentions the greater hardness of the Ethiopian skulls; proving, in that respect, at least, that the negro is the same now as he was two thousand years ago.

We know almost nothing about Herodotus’s personal life, but to my knowledge he never claimed any particular medical expertise or reported any experiment that he performed on the matter. Even in Antiquity learned men debated how much or little he cared to verify his claims. (Some called him the Father of Lies, not history.)  But let’s spot Cartwright the point and say the doctor did the experiments and found that black people had stronger bones than white people, just for the sake of argument.

What black people would Cartwright have on hand to dissect? Almost certainly dead slaves and, assuming he required permission from the owner, or cut up a slave of his own, he probably did not have a prized house slave but rather a field slave who lived a life of back-breaking physical labor. The same would probably hold for preserved specimens at museums. Exercise strengthens bones and muscles, whether undertaken by a black or white person and whether engaged in for self-improvement or compelled by the overseer’s lash.

Cartwright does not limit his description of skeletal peculiarities to the hardness or hue of bones, though. He says of black people

His head is hung on the atlas differently from the white man; the face is thrown more upwards, and the neck is shorter and less oblique; the spine more inwards

In other words, black people hunch down more than white people and thus have to look up more to see forward. This again sounds like the product of backbreaking work such as, for example, harvesting cotton by hand. A lifetime of that, beginning in childhood, would curve anyone’s spine.

Did Cartwright compare the spines and necks of field slaves with the spines and necks of, for example, white small farmers who would undertake much the same labor? He makes no mention of doing so despite frequent references to comparative anatomy.

I learned something today that I should have already known

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Being exposed to popular falsehoods and errors comes with the turf when you consume a lot of media about a subject. I try my best to be properly skeptical and critical, but must admit my lack of perfection. It does not help, of course, that I started taking in the media long before I had much in the way of tools to scrutinize it with. I sat with my father once or twice to watch Ken Burns before I left grade school and recall some arguments, and one paper, in high school where I managed staggering wrong-headedness.

It appears I can add another to the list of things that slipped past my filters. Until today I thought it common for former slaves, short on surnames, to take the name of their last owner. A bizarre idea in retrospect, I don’t know where I picked it up but I know I repeated it to a friend as recently as a month or two ago. I must never have really thought about it.  But now I know better:

On March 19, 1866 Col. Orlando Brown, the assistant commissioner in Virginia of what is commonly called the Freedman’s Bureau, ordered that a register be created of the names of freedmen “cohabitating together as man and wife.” The register contains not only the surnames of each individual, but also the names of the former masters of each. There are some 1,756 freedmen’s names (if I counted correctly.)

The results of reviewing the names in the register were revealing. Not only did freedmen not usually take the name of their former master, they almost never did. Of the 1,756 names reviewed, only 27 or 1.5% are the same as the final master. If some of the matches are only coincidental, that lowers the number further yet.

That settles it. I was wrong and really ought to have known better. Why would anybody be eager to take the name of someone who could have ordered their whipping or sold their children away just a year before? As Andy Hall of Dead Confederates notes in the comments, the notion feeds into the pernicious Lost Cause mythology about how slaves quite happily accepted their status. They did not.

Damn I feel dumb for not catching that one. I guess it goes to show how just how thoroughly one can erase, or allow others to erase, the slaves from the story of the era if one isn’t careful.

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

(Previous in the series: Introduction, Overview. 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.)

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

When last we left Dr. Cartwright, the Louisiana physician insisted that black people constitute a separate species from white people, possessing various peculiarities that distinguished them in anatomy and physiology. Those peculiarities in turn made them subject to mental illnesses which caused them to run away (Drapetomania) and to lack work ethic (Dysaethesia Aethiopica). I should say that in the nineteenth century, the word “peculiar” and its derivatives did not have quite the pejorative tinge that they have in our day and with which I employ it in my title. Southerners referred to slavery, among other things, as their peculiar institution but meant it not as we might to call it unpleasantly or suspiciously strange. Instead the word connoted a more value-neutral distinctiveness. To capture the same sense, we might say particular or different.

Cartwright believed black people a separate species but, like a good man of science, he did not simply assume it. Nor did he insist that color alone made the races into two species.

It is commonly taken for granted, that the color of the skin constitutes the main and essential difference between the black and the white race; but there are other differences more deep, durable, and indelible, in their anatomy and physiology, than that of mere color.

Modern biology tries to delineate species on firmer grounds than their appearance or simple gross anatomy, taking as its gold standard evolutionary lineages. But Cartwright lived and wrote before DNA, genetics, and Origin of Species. Insofar as he proceeds from morphological distinctiveness, the Louisiana doctor stands on firm nineteenth century scientific grounds.

Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus

Cartwright did not originate the idea that separate races of people constituted separate species. That honor goes to the Father of Taxonomy, Linnaeus himself. He classed humanity into four races based on skin color and continent: white Europeans, red Americans, brown (later yellow) Asians, and black Africans. He later described each as exemplifying one of the four temperaments of Antiquity, respectively sanguine, melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic.

However, nineteenth century authorities did not all follow Linnaeus. Polygenists, who did follow the Father of Taxonomy, like Cartwright and such Enlightenment luminaries as David Hume and Voltaire, insisted that the various races had different lineages and origins. Polygenists differed on how many races existed and how to divide one from another. Opposing them, monogenists insisted that the various races shared a common lineage. While challenged by monogenists, at the time Cartwright set pen to paper polygenism commanded a healthy share of the academy both in America and France. In the latter no less a figure than pioneering comparative anatomist and paleontologist Georges Cuvier affirmed the separate lineages of human races. In the United States, polygenists included both politically-informed Southerners like Cartwright and Massachusetts-based, apolitical Swiss immigrant Louis Agassiz.

Though I don’t know that he would go so far as Cartwright and the polygenists, I must add another authority’s words on the subject:

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

I came on the passage, to which I added the italics, by serendipity in my reading today. Lincoln spoke those words  at Charleston, Illinois on September 18, 1858, while debating Stephen Douglas.

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.

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

A brief programming note, Gentle Readers:

The death of Zachary Taylor seems like a good place to take a break from the Road to War, a series that has focused largely on white men vying with one another on grounds from which they excluded the very people most impacted by their decisions and instead examine how they looked upon the victims of the institution over which they fought: the slaves themselves. I may alternate Road to War posts with posts on the subject I’m about to introduce, but my history of juggling multiple projects at once does not inspire confidence. If you can’t stand the cliffhanger of the brewing Texas-New Mexico border war, the internet has plenty of spoilers. I do promise to return to the subject in time and the following series should not drag on interminably.

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

An Introduction

The defense of slavery took many forms. Slaveholders appealed to Biblical authority. They insisted on the moral superiority of slave labor to exploitative, savage, or degrading free labor. They maintained that white people simply could not work in the tropics, even in the face of small farmers who did just that near to their own plantations, but the same tropics ideally suited black people. But ultimately, defending slavery requires declaring it right, good, and natural or, at the very least, as right, good, and natural as one could hope for. Indeed, slavery improved not just the condition (not to mention finances) of the white owners but also uplifted the slaves themselves.

So why did slaves run away? Why did slaves throw less than their best efforts into their work? Why did they break tools? Why did they steal? If they benefited so much, why did they so often behave as if the burdened instead of liberated by slavery? Making slaves obey and produce greatly occupied the minds of the planter class, when if they really had the natural order working on their behalf one would expect things to simply fall together like water running downhill.

Nat Turner's Revolt of August 1831 claimed the lives of no more than 70 whites, including the infant who held legal title to him in 48 hours. Virginia executed 55, including Turner, and vigilante violence claimed the lives of up to 200 black people not involved.

Nat Turner’s Revolt of August 1831 claimed the lives of no more than 70 whites, including the infant who held legal title to him and other children, in 48 hours. Virginia executed 55, including Turner, and vigilante violence claimed the lives of up to 200 black people not involved. States across the South tightened restrictions on slaves in the aftermath, including forbidding teaching them to read.

The planters had the wrong premise. Slavery did much for them, but only exploited the slave. On some level the planters had to know that, if not in perhaps in those terms. Nothing terrified them like a slave uprising, but their everyday lives must have shown them countless reminders of the truth: all around them, outnumbering them, cooking their food, watching their children, with them when they slept and when they woke, lived people they exploited brutally. What would happen to them and their families if the pose of domesticity fell away in the face of ugly truths.

That tension goes a long way toward explaining the very defensive behavior of many slaveowners, even beyond the vast fortunes made by and invested in slave property. But how could they reconcile it enough to sleep at night? Like people of all ages, many probably became skilled at not thinking about it. But when someone criticizes you for something, you have to think about it and at least briefly face that doubt. Likewise when one’s own slaves ran away or passively resisted by dragging feet, deliberately misunderstanding, breaking tools, stealing, or the innumerable other small ways they resisted, one had to wonder.

Many authorities offered answers for the troubled slaveowner. In addition to the Bible and various philosophical arguments, the enlightened nineteenth century had science with which to offer consolation. I take as my text for the moment Dr. Samuel Cartwright’s Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race, a paper he presented to the Medical Convention of Louisiana in 1851, as reprinted in DeBow’s Review. I cannot say how widely the South accepted every detail of Cartwright’s ideas, but I do hope to grapple with his writing both as an artifact to explore an aspect of how slaveowners viewed their victims and as an example of the long and lamentable history of racist pseudoscience in the United States.

I am no more a scientist than I am a historian and, in all honesty, even less the former than the latter. I admire science. I live, walk, and see thanks to science’s advances and so feel a kind of personal obligation to do right by it. So I shall give it the best effort I can as a some random guy on the internet.

Still sick, but here’s something beautiful

I might be a few more days recovering. In the meantime thank you, Gentle Readers, for making yesterday the blog’s highest-traffic day yet. A lot of this writing is a labor of obsession and general exercise in history geekery, but it is very gratifying to know that others find some value in it too.

Enough about me and my ego. Time has faded the Emancipation Proclamation so the National Archives doesn’t haul it out and expose it to the light very often. But it did so for the 150th anniversary, displaying the document for three days. This happened. The men are reenactors for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

You can read and write a great deal about the history of the Civil War and not find a black face. I am just as guilty there as anyone. White America did a very good job of casting the war as the struggle between two groups of white men, with four million slaves reduced to passive recipients of white action. Lincoln freed the slaves. The subject Lincoln, acts upon the object slaves.

Lincoln did free the slaves. So did the Union armies. But disruption caused by the war also gave huge numbers of slaves the chance to free themselves. That part of the story forms a lacuna in my knowledge that I hope to fill eventually.

Just as I wrote this, I wondered how many of those men enlisted hoping to literally march home, find, and free loved ones left behind. The 54th might be a bad example there. I understand its recruits came from among free blacks in the North and I don’t know how many of them would have had family they knew of still in the South. Other units had rosters full of men who lived as slaves until shortly before enlistment.

Sick blogger = quiet blogger

Gentle readers,

I’m sick. I’m on my second day at it, actually. I wrote the post on Zachary Taylor back around Deliberately Ambiguous Winter Holiday Time but delayed it to work through Calhoun and Seward. The bonus post today came from a moment of horror and passion that coincided with a lull in my immune system’s tiny struggle for biological emancipation.

I’ve had this before and I’m not dying or anything, but it does leave me in a poor condition to do the kind of research,  analysis, and writing that I would prefer. Unfortunately it also comes when I’ve run out my buffer. I try to write posts at least a day in advance so I have more perspective when editing them, but that did not happen yesterday night (hence the exhausted buffer) and probably will not happen tonight. So the next day or two, hopefully no longer, may see Freedmen’s Patrol run silent.

Or I might feel better later tonight and write three posts in a row as I’ve done before. The Calhoun posts started out as one very long post. Also sometimes I just get on a roll. But if I am quiet, you know why.