According to Harriet Washington, black Americans in the mid-19th century were fearful of hospitals and medical schools. They associated these facilities with terror and punishment. Bodies in hospitals were displayed, and they were used for practicing medicine. The terminology changes depending on the person talking about it, but sometimes it was called practicing, autopsy, or dissection to bring attention or lessen attention to the brutality of the word. Whichever word was used, it was the equivalent of mutilation to those who feared it, and sparked justifiable terror in many black Americans.
Black doctors, of whom there were few, tried to defend the human rights of black Americans, but they were not allowed in the facilities that were using black cadavers. Black doctors usually received their education in different countries and had a difficult time continuing their education in America because of their color. They were shunned from advancement by making many facilities and universities inaccessible. They may have tried to defend their race, but they didn’t have enough influence to cause a difference.

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On the other hand, white doctors were indoctrinated with the thought that the bodies were expendable. This allowed them to conduct experiments without remorse. The need for education outweighed the need for them to stop rationalizing their actions.

The Restless Dead
The tale of a 68-year-old black auto mechanic is very disturbing because it is very recent, less than forty years ago. He turned up missing in 1977, and the police did not follow proper procedures to find him. When they finally found him, he was deceased and in an anatomy lab ready for dissection.

Making matters worse was the nonchalant attitude in which he had been given to the anatomy lab. It was during a lottery. Lotteries were sometimes created to decide which unclaimed body would be sent to the university. It was a callous method and reveals the dehumanization of the action. The upset family members of the auto mechanic were told he had died of natural causes. Further investigation proved that the man had emergency contact information in his pocket.

The family sued the hospital for negligence, and the case was dismissed. They then sued the District of Columbia and were awarded money, but it was reversed on appeal.

It turns out, the mechanic had been detained in a detox center because he was highly inebriated. His clothes had been removed along with the contact information, and he was transported the next day to the hospital when he remained ill.

He was the only unidentified person in the hospital, and there is no explanation as to why the searching family members weren’t led to his body prior to his death. The hospital claimed it was a fluke incident.

Mostly Black Cadavers
It used to be that most cadavers were black, but now that this has been brought to the attention of those using cadavers they claim they are mostly white. There is no evidence to investigate. Since most of the cadavers are poor, friendless, unclaimed bodies, they are most likely predominantly black because they are a majority in the poor and homeless populations. The racial disparity being what it is, it is likely they are still mostly black.

It is worth noting that physicians have been frustrated by the lack of cadavers for education, and they worry about not having the deceased to learn on, rather than experimenting on live subjects.

Awareness, education, and race has played a role in the number of recent body donations. Forty percent fewer persons are donating their bodies to science, 70 percent less black people. Some of the fear from the black population comes from stories like those of the mechanic. Others come from folklore, historic tales exaggerated through oral media. Regardless of the level of exaggeration, it is true that black Americans have been disproportionately used for dissection and autopsy.

  • Washington, Harriet. Medical Apartheid. New York: Harlem Moon, 2006. Print.