Sex, Sickness, and Slavery: Illness in the Antebellum South. By Marli F. Weiner with Mazie Hough. (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2012. Pp. 288. $60.00.)
Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 146–147, Spring 2014
How to Cite
Brophy, A. L. (2014), Sex, Sickness, and Slavery: Illness in the Antebellum South. By Marli F. Weiner with Mazie Hough. (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2012. Pp. 288. $60.00.). Historian, 76: 146–147. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_38
- Issue published online: 4 MAR 2014
- Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
Marli F. Weiner's posthumously published book, Sex, Sickness, and Slavery, is an intellectual history of medical science in the pre-Civil War South. In this beautifully written book, Weiner details how physicians wrote and thought about the illnesses of slaves and women.
This is largely a story of how the physicians were limited by their views; they could not see either slaves or women as equal in capacity or health to white men. Those views made physicians less able to view accurately the mental and physical health of slaves and women and presumably stood in the way of providing appropriate medical care. But maybe the real story here is not so much that physicians' ideas affected their modes of treatment but that preexisting ideas about the inferiority of slaves and women affected the development of scientific literature. That is, Weiner shows that physicians were so convinced about the inferiority of slaves—of the slaves' refusal to work and of their mental inferiority—that they could not see a different reality. Similarly, physicians saw women, both white and black, as physically and mentally weak, and they believed that the more refined women became, the more susceptible they were to perceived physical and emotional hardships. Thus, physicians' expectations limited the development of science. Moreover, the literature that they produced under those constraints further confirmed the ideas of their society: that slaves and women were inferior to white males. Thus the “scientific” literature was deeply affected by Southern culture and helped to entrench further those ideas.
Weiner presents a series of harrowing stories of how physicians and owners treated slaves. Southern physicians, for example, experimented on enslaved patients. Some of the most revealing examples in Weiner's study are those of slaves who did not fit well as either male or female. Here Southern physicians puzzled over how to classify intersex slaves, how to expect them to behave, and how to treat them. Often the “treatment” involved surgery.
Yet owners, because they needed to protect their investment in slaves, only sometimes consulted physicians. Probably even more frequently, however, owners tortured slaves who they thought were malingering in order to get them to work. In many cases the slaves died as a result of the abuse.
Sex, Sickness, and Slavery joins a distinguished body of scholarship that shows how intellectual power in the South was mobilized in support of slavery. Weiner adds physicians to the groups of professionals—ministers, lawyers, judges, even fiction writers—whose scholarship supported slavery by showing the supposed inferiority of slaves. Science, like law and religion, was about politics and economics. The boundaries of scientific knowledge were set by the culture of the scientists. This is important, for we see yet again how the wealthy and well educated operated in the old South to add their professional status to the institution of slavery.