On this dayMar 17, 1851

Pro-Slavery Doctor Claims Discovery of "Drapetomania"

On March 17, 1851, at the annual meeting of the Louisiana Medical Association, Dr. Samuel Cartwright presented a committee report entitled, "A Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race." Filled with claims of "scientific racism," the report also documented a new disease: Drapetomania.

More than a year before, in December 1849, the Louisiana State Medical Convention had selected Dr. Cartwright, a pro-slavery advocate, to chair a committee tasked with investigating and reporting on diseases unique to black people. In the resulting report, Dr. Cartwright claimed black people were very different physiologically from white people, possessing smaller brains, more sensitive skin, and overdeveloped nervous systems. These unique traits, he claimed, gave black people an especially high propensity for servitude. Citing "scientific" evidence and scripture, Dr. Cartwright argued that "the Negro is a slave by nature and can never be happy . . . in any other condition."

Dr. Cartwright invented the term Drapetomania, derived from the Greek words for "runaway slave" and "crazy," to describe a new curable mental disease. When infected with this affliction, he claimed, enslaved black people were struck with an urge to flee bondage and seek freedom. He further explained that the disease was triggered by masters who unwisely treated enslaved people as their equals and prescribed "treatment" such as severe whipping and amputation of the toes.

Couched in pseudo-science and presented as medical assertions, Dr. Cartwright's report was an effort to justify and defend the institution of slavery as natural and optimal for both white slave owners and the black people they enslaved.

About EJI

The Equal Justice Initiative works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality.

Learn more

About this website

Until we confront our history of racial injustice and its legacy, we cannot overcome the racial bias that exists today.

Learn more