Jan. 25, 2013 by David Low
In her illuminating new book, Doctoring Freedom (University of North Carolina Press), Gretchen Long ’89 shares the stories of African Americans who fought for access to both medical care and medical education, as she reveals the important relationship between medical practice and political identity. Even before emancipation, African Americans recognized that control of their bodies was an essential battleground in their struggle for autonomy, and they devised strategies to retain some of that control.
During her research, Long, an associate professor of history at Williams College, closely studied antebellum medical journals, planters’ diaries, agricultural publications, letters from wounded African American soldiers, WPA narratives, and military and Freedmen’s Bureau reports. Within these documents, she was able to trace African Americans’ political acts to secure medical care: their organizing of mutual-aid societies, their petitions to the federal government, and, as a last resort, their founding of their own medical schools, hospitals, and professional organizations. She also writes about the efforts of the earliest black physicians who worked in times of slavery and freedom.