Masters of Health

Racial Science and Slavery in U.S. Medical Schools

By Christopher Willoughby

282 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 9 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7212-0
    Published: November 2022
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7184-0
    Published: November 2022
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7185-7
    Published: October 2022
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5880-1
    Published: October 2022

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Medical science in antebellum America was organized around a paradox: it presumed African Americans to be less than human yet still human enough to be viable as experimental subjects, as cadavers, and for use in the training of medical students. By taking a hard look at the racial ideas of both northern and southern medical schools, Christopher D. E. Willoughby reveals that racist ideas were not external to the medical profession but fundamental to medical knowledge.

In this history of racial thinking and slavery in American medical schools, the founders and early faculty of these schools emerge as singularly influential proponents of white supremacist racial science. They pushed an understanding of race influenced by the theory of polygenesis—that each race was created separately and as different species—which they supported by training students to collect and measure human skulls from around the world. Medical students came to see themselves as masters of Black people's bodies through stealing Black people’s corpses, experimenting on enslaved people, and practicing distinctive therapeutics on Black patients. In documenting these practices Masters of Health charts the rise of racist theories in U.S. medical schools, throwing new light on the extensive legacies of slavery in modern medicine.

About the Author

Christopher D. E. Willoughby is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the History of Medicine Health at Pitzer College. He is also editor of the book Medicine and Healing in the Age of Slavery.
For more information about Christopher Willoughby, visit the Author Page.


"...Highly thought-provoking and timely in understanding the history of U.S...The book makes a compelling connection between our experiences today and 19th-century medical training in the United States."—LAMPHHS's The Watermark

“This book is a meticulous autopsy of a ghoulish intellectual scandal. In this disturbing history of medical schools in the United States, we learn how debates over slavery, nature, and the origin of humankind played out on suffering bodies and desecrated corpses and imbued racist thought into the management of medicine. Willoughby is a talented storyteller with the moral gravity of an Old Testament orator. At stake here may be nothing less than the scholarly salvation of American health care.”—Vincent Brown, author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery

“With innovative archival research on the writings of medical students, Willoughby brilliantly illuminates how ideas about Black anatomical difference found an intellectual home in medical schools, becoming foundational to U.S. medical culture, pedagogy, and practice and to the politics of slavery, global capitalism, and imperialism. Willoughby provides a crucial lesson for grappling with racism in medicine today: we must trace its persistence not so much to the racist doctors who built the medical profession but more to the way racist ideas grounded the medical profession’s development. Masters of Health is essential reading for understanding medicine’s enduring entanglements with slavery and for efforts to eliminate their afterlives in medicine today.”—Dorothy Roberts, author of Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century

"Crucial reading for historians as well as physicians, this book shifts historical attention away from the South and slavery to explore how the so-called benevolent and free North was equally culpable in the exploitation of black bodies. Highlighting the importance of imperial expansion and transnational cultural infusions to the evolution of American medicine, Willoughby intricately illustrates the wider Atlantic origins of professional medicine in America."—Sasha D. Turner, author of Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica

"An original, fascinating, and convincing book that takes us far beyond the standard narrative of race and medicine in America. Through deep immersion into archival sources, Masters of Health significantly reshapes our understanding of the role of antebellum U.S. medical education in producing white supremacy."—Sharla M. Fett, author of Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade