Dr. Samuel Cartwright was a 19th century physician who practiced in the antebellum American South. In the course of his work, the good doctor had noticed a concerning mental health epidemic. Other physicians were familiar with the symptoms, but Cartwright claimed he was the first to discover the cause… and the questionable cure.

Samuelcartwright.jpg Wikimedia Commons

In 1851 Dr. Samuel Cartwright published an article in the magazine DeBow’s Review - “Diseases and the Peculiarities of the Negro Race”. In the article Cartwright announced that he had made a landmark discovery. He had observed that black slaves were fleeing from white owners in the South, escaping to the North where slavery was abolished. Why did the slaves keep running away?

Cartwright had an explanation: this was a new form of insanity. A rapidly-spreading mental illness that made slaves dissatisfied with slavery.

According to Cartwright, if a slave appeared ‘sulky’, that slave was suffering from a form of insanity called ‘dysaethesia aethiopica’. And dysaethesia aethiopica could turn into something even worse, ‘drapetomania’, which afflicted slaves with the urge to run away from plantation life.

But both illnesses were preventable. Cartwright recommended handling budding drapetomaniacs by ‘whipping the devil out’ of them and other violent treatments. It was an excellent way of reminding slaves what they would be missing, if they ran away. If slave owners followed his instructions, Cartwright promised slaves would have no interest in escaping, even “though the slaves be located on the borders of a free state, within a stone’s throw of the abolitionists.” But if former slaves became legally free, these mental illnesses would consume them permanently.

More Information & Sources:

Cartwright’s article was widely circulated in the South, but openly mocked in the North. The Buffalo Medical Journal wrote a satirical editorial review of Cartwright’s article in 1855. (“Editorial Department” Buffalo Medical Journal. v.10 1854-1855 Jun-May. Pp. 438-43. HathiTrust Digital Library. HathiTrust.org Accessed 8/19/2016)

  1. “Diseases and the Peculiarities of the Negro Race”. Samuel Cartwright. DeBow’s Review; Southern and Western States. Vol. 11. New Orleans. 1851. AMS Press, Inc.: New York. 1967. PBS.org Accessed 6/21/16.
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