Medical Apartheid - A book review by Jasmine B. Lanton


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Harriet A. Washington. (2008) Medical Apartheid Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. 

A book review by Jasmine B. Lanton

Medical Apartheid provides a riveting yet saddening account of the history of Black Americans within the medical system. Black Americans have the highest infection rates in diseases like HIV, heart disease, and certain cancers, and the highest infant mortality rates. Yet, they have the lowest rates of going to hospitals when sick, and the lowest medical research volunteer rates. Throughout US history, trust in the medical system is the lowest in the Black community compared to other racial or ethnic groups, but why is that? Many may attribute this mistrust to the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and although that is not necessarily untrue, Washington reveals that this mistrust has emerged from much more than one incident. 

Medical Apartheid is the only comprehensive book that documents the experiences of Black Americans in medicine from slavery to the present. Many of these accounts have been lost throughout time, “white-washed” out of history, or deeply obscured within medical journals where they are surrounded by jargon and language with racist undertones. However, Washington effectively translates these stories so readers can understand the depth of racist malpractices.  

Washington initially studied medicine and spent decades working in different hospital departments, from psychiatry to poison-control. She left medicine and became an inner-city medical social worker, working mostly with African American patients. Washington then became a journalist and ethics writer, primarily writing about scientific topics. Medical Apartheid is the culmination of Washington’s experiences with the medical system, and her research within old textbooks, medical journals, and passed-down stories of first-hand accounts. Medical Apartheid recounts some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in history and the accompanying injustices towards African Americans who have been silenced. From the development of vaccines and gynecology to the handling of the initial HIV epidemic, Washington balances the dense scientific literature with the emotional elements of the agony of African Americans of the time. The book starts with an introduction and is then split into three chronological parts of history, giving readers a timeline of the growing mistrust of African Americans in the medical system.  

Medical Apartheid is an informative and engaging read for audiences. The book compiles the “forgotten” and censored stories of Black Americans in medicine and references written testimony from physicians and patients themselves in chronological order. The text can be at times a bit hard to follow, due to the vast amount of information given, but this is understandable as the book covers the history of over two centuries of medicine. I recommend that everyone, especially those in the medical field, should read Medical Apartheid. It is important for society to know about the racist history of medical interventions in order to understand the staunch attitudes many Black Americans have towards the American medical system today.



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