Submission Date


Document Type

Paper- Restricted to Campus Access


African American and Africana Studies

Faculty Mentor

Patricia Lott

Second Faculty Mentor

Edward Onaci

Project Description

Modern medicine has almost inextricably intertwined non-consensual experimentation and exploitation in its handling of Black people since the system’s inception. Notable examples include the exhibition and exploitation of Black Americans with vitiligo and albinism in the nineteenth century and the dermatological experiments on black inmates in Philadelphia’s Holmesburg prison (1951-1974). Such disproportionate and unethical use of Black subjects by researchers, physicians, and U.S. government agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has created a medical and scientific foundation upon which modern-day harms continue to build. Yet, existing scholarship on this history often neglects to give insight into the factors that made this exploitation possible including the broader culture that aided and abetted the researchers, institutions, and facilities who conducted such experiments—as well as the aftereffects on Black people and their descendants. This paper seeks to fill this gap by addressing the following research question: how has the consistent and disproportionate use of Black subjects for non-therapeutic experiments cultivated “transgenerational iatrodyspistia.” It proposes the concept of “transgenerational iatrodyspistia” to illuminate a well-founded and deeply rooted medical mistrust by Black Americans toward the modern medical system. Using medical ethics as a lens, this paper reviews existing scholarship about unscrupulous medical experimentation upon Black subjects and analyzes case studies from the postbellum period through the mid-twentieth century in order to demonstrate the extent to which medical researchers’ ill-treatment of Black people has left the latter with psychological and physical scars. Ultimately, this paper seeks to elucidate the anti-Black foundation of western medicine as an institution and to unpack how that foundation shapes contemporary dynamics between Black Americans and medical professionals.


Presented during the 24th Annual Summer Fellows Symposium, July 22, 2022 at Ursinus College.


Available to Ursinus community only.