Family Practice physician Dr. Thaddeus Bell talks about race and medicine, focusing on drapetomania, a case of scientific racism.
Read the full transcript »

Mary: Welcome ICYou on topic. The medical community is aware that racism is a part of a medicine. Dr. Thaddeus Bell is here to tell us exactly what that means and to give us a history. Okay, Dr. Bell, draptomania, a case of scientific racism. What is it? Dr. Bell: Well, you know, that’s a very interesting topic and it came into my attention about a year ago. I'm very fortunate to have two first cousins who are historians and one day we were talking about why African-Americans have such a hard time in dealing with diagnoses that have been made with reference to mental illnesses and they both said almost simultaneously where haven’t you heard about draptomania and of course I have not heard about draptomania and then they went on to explain to me that perhaps one of the reasons why African-American, some African-American people have a hard time accepting going to a psychiatrist is because years ago, the word draptomania about as a result of Dr. Samuel Cartwright who coined the term and it was referred to slaves who ran away from freedom and he felt that these slaves were mentally ill because how could they have the audacity to run away from food, water and shelter and so he thought it was a mental illness and in fact perceived as a mental illness at a conference that he went to in Louisiana. Now, of course draptomania is not a functional term now and we know that that’s totally ridiculous but as a result of that diagnosis being made back in 1851 and actually was a functional term for a long period of time it has filtered down through the generations and so African-Americans it is felt by some that African-Americans have a very, very difficult time seeking mental health treatment as a result of that term. It’s really kind of interesting how the nuances of information like that has continued to be a part of the African-American psyche when it comes to medicine and here again, that may contribute to the fear that many African-Americans have about the medical community because things like that are part of medical history. Mary: Now, going back to when this term was first coined, what -- I mean obviously there’s a relation here, what would happen to these slaves if -- Dr. Bell: Very good question, when this diagnosis was made, this doctor, Dr. Cartwright suggested that the way you treat draptomania would be to whip these slaves back into a right man and that in fact is what was done. Another thing that was done was to cut off their big toe so that they wouldn’t run away again. And so those kinds of horrific stories continued to be passed down through the African-American culture and that’s one of the reasons why some people think that African-Americans are not as likely to seek treatment for mental illnesses like we should so now you know, as they say, now you know the rest of the story. Mary: Now, I'm just wondering, where do you think the connection came in with you know from these slaves being treated for running away to modern mental illness where -- Dr. Bell: Well, first of all I think that you know it was back during the early 1800s when it was felt that African Americans were in a fury of race. People actually measure African American brains that try to say that well, because the brains were smaller that there was less intellectual capacity. The connection between being referred to as having draptomania and not seeking treatment for mental illness is one that continues to puzzle me but as stories have gotten told down through the years and I’ve noticed in my own medical career that it is always been difficult for African Americans to acknowledge that even somebody is mentally ill in their family and to even go seek treatment for mental illnesses. So this is just one of those, that whole subject has been mixed with fear truth and some other that has been totally ridiculous but it continues to play a role even today and so that’s why I find it very very interesting but it was a part of medical -- it is an uncomfortable part o

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement