Disease and Treatment: An Overview

views updated

Disease and Treatment: An Overview

Disease epidemics were common in the antebellum South, and often wreaked havoc on slave populations. One contemporary estimate held that the 1832 cholera epidemic alone destroyed 4 million dollars worth of slave property; to put a more human cost on it, many large plantations lost ten to twenty slaves each. Slave owners were impacted financially, many faced with bankruptcy—in Cuba planters lost so many slaves that there was serious consideration of abolition as an economic necessity. Cholera was, in fact, one of the most feared perennial diseases, and one of the most destructive. In another epidemic, occurring between 1849 and 1850, some Lower South planters lost up to half of their slave force, with the disease cutting a swath westward into the Mississippi Black Belt region. In one Louisiana parish 100 slaves died, while 400 others fell ill. One Louisiana planter—himself a physician—was unable to save twelve of his 200 slaves. Cholera, however, was not the only threat. In the winters between 1835 and 1837, the Black Belt was ravaged by typhoid fever; in 1851 the same region was visited by typhoid dysentery, or the bloody flux. Yellow fever was also common, and some doctors of the time claimed that pneumonia was the greatest killer of all, responsible for up to one-sixth of all Negro deaths (Genovese 1960, p. 141).

Ex-slave Peter Brown of Arkansas remembered well the specter of cholera:

Ma and pa et dinner, well as could be. Took cholera, was dead at twelve o'clock that night. It was on Monday. Ike and Jake took it. They got over it. I waited on the little things. One of them said 'Peter, I'm hungry.' I broiled some meat, made a ash cake and put the meat in where I split the ash cake. He ate it and went to sleep. He started mending. Sister come and got the children and took them to Lake Providence. I fell in the hands then of some cruel people … we buried ma and pa on the neighbor's place. We had kin folks on the Harris place. While we was at the graveyard word come to dig two or three more graves. (Works Progress Administration, Arkansas Narratives, vol. 2, part 1, p. 312)

For the owners, disease meant—in addition to health threats to their own families—financial difficulties. For the slaves it meant not only the threat of immediate illness or death, but also potentially permanent health impairment. Slave children tended to be abnormally short, often making up part of the difference in adolescent growth spurts; authors Philip Coelho and Robert McGuire (2000) have argued that this is primarily because of low birth weight caused by malaria and intestinal parasites such as hookworms. This was exacerbated by the fact that children were sometimes kept in nurseries with other afflicted youngsters, and that none of them wore shoes. Once they were old enough to work in the fields—actually a cleaner environment—and be issued shoes, parasites were a smaller part of the equation. Author Richard Steckel (2000), however, argues that it was malnutrition of children that caused the height and weight disparities; once they were old enough to work in the fields they were fed better, making them stronger and more resistant. Regardless of which was a bigger factor, nutrition or disease, both were influential in bad health among children. Doctors, meanwhile—whether white physicians or slave root doctors—were mostly powerless to stem the tide of such diseases.


Coelho, Philip, and Robert A. McGuire. "Diets Versus Diseases: The Anthropometrics of Slave Children." The Journal of Economic History 60, no. 1 (March 2000): 232-246.

Genovese, Eugene. "The Medical and Insurance Costs of Slaveholding in the Cotton Belt." The Journal of Negro History 45, no. 3 (July 1960): 141-155.

Steckel, Richard H. "Diets Versus Diseases: The Anthropometrics of Slave Children: A Reply." The Journal of Economic History 60, no. 1 (March 2000): 247-259.

Works Progress Administration (WPA) Slave Narratives: Peter Brown, Arkansas Narratives, vol. 2, part 1, pp. 311-314.

                                          Troy D. Smith