MEDICAL APARTHEID: THE DARK HISTORY OF MEDICAL EXPERIMENTATION ON BLACK AMERICANS FROM COLONIAL TIMES TO THE PRESENT by Harriet A. Washington (Doubleday), 500 pages, $36.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
In the United States, from slavery days to now, black America has been cut, burned, starved, drugged and left to die of disease, all in the name of medical and scientific research.
These dark and deadly experiments have not received the same attention as those carried out against "racial inferiors" by Nazi science. Academic and journalist Harriet A. Washington hopes to change that with her new book.
This angry (the anger often unfocused) but deeply interesting investigation takes the reader on a 200-year odyssey from sweaty Southern slave shacks to modern-day New York City, where medical investigators starved and bled young black males in their search for the what they called the criminal gene.
One of the most interesting sadists in the book is James Marion Sims, a surgeon who performed painful surgical experimentation on the vaginas of women slaves before perfecting the technique enough to work on white women. After his death, Sims was venerated as a father of gynecology. His statue still stands near New York's Central Park.
The words "bizarre" and "cruel" are not too strong to describe the experiments described in Medical Apartheid. Consider the scientists who decided to try using radiation to turn black skin white. Or the researchers who, for reasons known only to themselves, irradiated prisoners' testicles.
Of course, no investigation of this kind would be complete if it failed to delve into the U.S. government's 40-year Tuskegee experiment, which studied the effects of untreated syphilis on 399 black men in Alabama, even though it was well-known how syphilis spreads and kills . The study ended only in 1972.
All this shows that widespread present-day fears of ulterior motives in medical research are far from paranoid.