Shortly after New Orleans physician Samuel Cartwright discovered a new disease in 1850, he realized that like all medical pioneers he faced a special burden. “In noticing a disease1 not heretofore classed among the long list of maladies that man is subject to,” he told a gathering of the Medical Association of Louisiana, “it was necessary to have a new term to express it.” Cartwright could have followed the example of many of his peers and named the malady for himself, but he decided instead to exercise the ancient Greek he’d learned while being educated in Philadelphia. He took two words —drapetes, meaning “runaway slave,” and the more familiar mania—and fashioned drapetomania, “the disease causing Negroes to run away.”
The new’ disease, Cartwright reported in The New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, had one diagnostic symptom—“absconding from service”—and a few secondary ones, including a sulkiness and dissatisfaction that appeared just prior to the slaves’ flight. Through careful observations made when he practiced in Maryland, he developed a crude epidemiology and concluded that environmental factors could play a role in the onset of drapetomania
But the most evenhanded treatment would not prevent all cases, and for those whose illness was “without cause,” Cartwright had a prescription: “whipping the devil- out of them.”
Lest anyone doubt that drapetomania was a real disease—and, evidently, some Northern doctors did—Cartwright offered proof. First of all, he said, we know that Negroes are descended from the people of Canaan, a name that means “submissive knee-bender,” so it’s clear what God had in mind for the race. And in case a reader subscribed to the notion, taught in the “northern hornbooks in Medicine,” that “the Negro is only a lampblacked white man … requiring nothing but liberty and equality—social and political—to wash him white,” Cartwright called as witnesses the prominent European doctors who had “demonstrated, by dissection, so great a difference between the Negro and the white man as to induce the majority of naturalists to refer him to a different species.”
Africans’ blood was darker, he said, and “the membranes, tendons, and aponeuroses, so brilliantly white in the Caucasian race, have a livid cloudiness in the African.” This historical and biological evidence, Cartwright concluded, proved that running away is neither willfulness nor the normal human striving for freedom, but illness plain and simple.