Nineteenth-century medical schools plundered the graves of African Americans.
Shadowy – elusive – terrifying—for well over a century after the Civil War the night doctors moved through the cities and through American folklore – looking for their victims.
Health care in the United States has rarely been motivated by philanthropy.
The South Carolina Medical College for example – founded in 1824 by the Medical Society of South Carolina – subsisted directly on fees paid by students.
Increasingly, by the 1820s and thirties anatomy classes were a requirement of doctors who wanted to practice in the States and places like the South Carolina Medical College were founded as a money-making enterprise to serve that need.
Of particular note was that the SCMC was chartered to only treat slaves.
Certainly there were hospitals for whites – but Southern doctors made the majority of their income from operating on slaves – in such transactions the plantation master was the client not the patient him or herself.
Doctors in the South regularly relied on the bodies of slaves as a means to practice their craft – often advertising their need for ‘interesting’ conditions.
Such interest often came with callous disregard for these men and women.
Todd L. Savitt chronicles an antebellum example of blatant malpractice in which a slave was sent to a Southern medical college with a leg ulcer that had been caused by a burn.
‘The wound would not yield to the staff’s ministrations’ Savitt writes ‘so the surgeon decided to amputate his leg—an extreme remedy in such a case.
The servant believed that ‘his leg was cut off just to let the students see the operation and to bring the doctor, as well as the medical college … into notice.’
Furthermore – offering to treat people free of charge was one method of getting cadavers.
Individuals who died at the hospital—and thus away from their families—were easier to seize for dissection – since there was no one present to take the body for a proper funeral.
And without cadavers – there could be no medical school.
In the early nineteenth century the number of medical schools in the United States and Europe exploded.
By one count America began the nineteenth century with just four but by century’s end there were more than 160.
It was as Charles Caldwell termed it ‘a perfect medical-school mania’: as the field tried to slough allegations of quackery and mysticism through more rigorous training and understanding – medical degrees became a quick means for young men to raise their social standing and make a middle-class living.