NBCC Award Finalists in Nonfiction: Harriet A. Washington’s “Medical Apartheid”


This is the sixth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Harriet A. Washington, “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present,” Doubleday.

Any reader who considers the United States essentially racist will not find surprising the theme of “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present,” by Harriet A. Washington.

Nonetheless, that same reader will probably find the details of the cruelty to human beings with dark skin shocking, especially considering that so much of the cruelty emanated from physicians and nurses sworn to heal pain, not cause it.

The only uplift coming from the book are the persistence and skill of the author, who must have felt nauseated through her years of research and writing.  Washington, a journalist and university researcher, has produced an important book.

One of the awful experiments covered by Washington is widely known.  Started by the federal government’s public health service in 1932, it carried the official title “Study of Syphilis in the Untreated Negro Male.”  Sometimes called the Tuskegee study, it has been the subject of previous books, of movies, of newspaper and magazine accounts galore.

The remaining chapters in Washington’s book cover experiments much less well-known, but no less cruel.

Washington does her utmost to maintain a modicum of professional distance as she writes.  “I was determined that [the book] not be a simplistic ‘black hats, white hats’ story in which African Americans are passive victims and researchers are always villains.  Instead, the book takes a frank but more nuanced look at the calculus of racism’s effects on experimental practice.”

She succeeds.  From the opening page, with its focus on physician James Marion Sims, remembered after his death as a champion of women’s health care, Washington chronicles the gap between appearance and reality.  Yes, Sims advanced gynecological medicine.  But he also experimented on the genitalia of unanethetized slave women, leaving them shrieking in pain and bloodied.  “Was Sims a savior or a sadist?” Washington asks.

The answer is both—savior to many Caucasian women, and sadist to many African-American women.  Medical apartheid, indeed.—Steve Weinberg

“Medical Apartheid” review in The New York Times Book Review.

Harriet Washington interview on NPR.

Interview with Harriet Washington on Book TV.

Excerpt from “Medical Apartheid” at