by Denise DiFulco

“Black soldiers during the Civil War wrote about their own medical experiences. They were wounded or sick or they saw white soldiers getting better care. Sickness is one of those things that puts them on the page a bit.”

gretchen long
Gretchen Long

Before she attended graduate school at the University of Chicago, Associate Professor of History Gretchen Long worked for Planned Parenthood and the Chicago Women’s Health Center. The experience informed her academic intentions. “I was intrigued by how different groups gained access to health care,” she explains, “especially women.”

When she took a course in slavery and emancipation, Long suddenly found her inclination shifting away from women and health care. Attempting to link an assignment with her long-term interests, she wrote a paper about black medical care under slavery. “There were so many unanswered questions,” she says. “And I got hooked.”

Since then she has written extensively about the nature of diseases and the care blacks received as slaves and freed people, especially as compared to the white population. In her upcoming book, Doctoring Freedom, which is to be published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2011, she offers more than quantitative analysis or a simple narrative of doctoring, disease and death. Instead, the book is a cultural and historical exploration of how medical practice and black health fit into 19th-century American ideas about freedom and race.

A Williams faculty member for the past six years, Long conducted much of her research for the book as a 2006-2007 Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow at Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Center for African and African American Studies. Doctoring Freedom spans the period from the waning years of slavery until the early 20th century, though Long focuses on the Civil War due to the extensive records available for that period. “The Civil War was such a huge health crisis,” she says. “More soldiers died of illness than injury, and there was overt fretting about who was going to care for them.”

In particular, there was a great deal of hand wringing, she says, over the care of blacks. Questions were posed at the time about whether blacks were healthy enough to live as free men and women and whether freedom was even good for them from a medical standpoint. Little was known for certain about the physical differences between blacks and whites, although Long found through her research that experts generally agreed that slaves were healthier than the immigrant populations entering the United States during the late 19th century.

Long’s research also examines the role of black medical practitioners, beginning with slave healers during slavery. After the Civil War black medical schools were founded as the practice of medicine, in general, became more professional. “They wanted to position themselves akin to the whites,” Long says, explaining that black medical colleges were similarly scientific, modern and male-dominated, with many women who were healers under slavery relegated to nursing.

In spite of their education and expertise, black doctors often encountered resistance and roadblocks. Long was captivated by the story of Moses Camplin, a Southern doctor who had set up a practice for blacks but was prevented by municipal officials from signing death certificates, a critical aspect of a doctor’s work since patients in those days often died of their illnesses and injuries. Without the ability to pronounce people dead, Long explains, “it would break up his business entirely.”

Camplin was among several black doctors in the 19th century who wrote letters to municipal officials and to the Freedmen’s Bureau seeking the right to practice medicine. Long was struck, in particular, by his handwriting. “His handwriting is so beautiful it jumps off the page,” she says. “He presents himself so professionally.” Camplin’s letters are among those she has shared with her classes in American Medical History, the penmanship a clue to the doctor’s level of education. She also has used articles from 19th-century journals with advice for slave owners on the proper care and feeding of their slaves.

In another of her classes, History of American Childhood, Long has been working out some new ideas for her next project, which will concern how black children are deployed in politics. The course is cross listed with Africana Studies, and in it she offers readings such as slave narratives and memoirs of growing up in the Jim Crow South, while also discussing contemporary media and literature, including television shows such as The Wire. “Even though the class is at 8:30 in the morning, my students are game up,” she says. “They are helping me think through some of this stuff.”

IMAGE CREDIT: Photos by Jon Roemer