Visiting author discusses the history of the black body in medicine

Madison Weaver, Assistant News Editor

Harriet A. Washington, medical writer and editor, presented a lecture on her research and published work about the intersections of history, medicine, and ethics in relation to African American health on March 1. The lecture was the fourth installment of the Black Body (Re)Considered spring lecture series hosted by the Griot Institute for Africana Studies. The series brings in artists and scholars of various disciplines to engage in conversation about the black body.

The presentation centered on “medical research with African Americans in this country and how [the] seeds of contemporary ethical issues can be found in that research from the 16th century to early 20th century,” Washington said.

Washington’s research extends back to colonial times, and in her book “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present,” which won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, she investigates the history of medical experimentation on African Americans and how past events have shaped current opinions.

“A lot of my work focuses on the roots of ethical and medical problems and abuses even, and today’s research can found in habits of thought that were formed and still reside in medical and historical thought,” Washington said.

Washington also works to reexamine historical facts that have previously been discounted as myth, remembering conversations with experts in similar fields who did not know about or chose not to study the black body’s history in medicine.

“People who are not scholars on the history of medicine would often dismiss belief in certain events as myths,” Washington said. “A lot of information in my book had been dismissed for a long time as mythological, pretty much universally for a long time. I thought it was important to document that it was not at all mythological, these things actually happened.”

“I think it’s really important for people to learn to question received knowledge. Don’t simply accept something at face value because it was given to you by a historian, or by a scientist,” Washington said. “We fall into the habit of thinking these people are infallible, that these disciplines are totally untainted by bias or mythology … learn to think critically and learn to assess for yourself.”

The next lecture in the Black Body (Re)Considered series will be given by Nyle Fort, who will discuss the moral and spiritual dimensions of the Black Lives Matter movement on March 8 at 7 p.m. in the Gallery Theatre.

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