Thursday, July 15, 2010

Thomas Jefferson's Medical Experiments on Slaves

“In the best patrician tradition of his times, Thomas Jefferson was not only a country squire and leading politician but also a scientist. Eager to make his mark, Jefferson embarked on enthusiastic adventures in vaccination by gambling with the lives of his slaves. He wished to establish that Edward Jenner’s new technique of vaccination was superior to the technique of inoculation (or, as it came to be called a century later, variolation). Inoculation consisted of inserting or injecting infected material from a sick person directly into a well one to induce immunity. Vaccination in this era, referred to the process of injecting cowpox to provide immunity to smallpox, as Jenner first described in 1796. Jefferson obtained some cowpox vaccine indirectly from Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse of Boston, but it was known to be of dubious potency: The vaccine had failed to protect the subjects of an earlier trial. Jefferson spent that summer vaccinating two hundred of his family’s and his neighbor’s slaves. Only after they escaped illness did Jefferson inject his white family at Monticello.

The vaccinated persons remained well and the unvaccinated ones fell ill, but this did not convince Jefferson’s scientific peers, so Jefferson had a vaccinated slave injected with live smallpox material. When this slave remained well, Jefferson wrote his daughter Martha to proceed in order to ‘place our families and neighbors in perfect security.’

As a seasoned politician, Jefferson knew that his experiments on slaves would be criticized and that they seemed at variance with his sympathetic statements about blacks, so he slyly used language to deflect possible criticism, referring to conducting experiments ‘on some of my own family,’ without clarifying that the ‘family’ in question consisted of slaves owned by himself and his son.” -From, "Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to The Present" By: Harriet A. Washington

[SIDEBAR: This book is a MUST read! Please go out and get it. It has superb information in it! It should be required reading in all educational institutions.]

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