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Samuel Cartwright

Samuel Adolphus Cartwright (November 3, 1793 – May 2, 1863) was a physician who practiced in Mississippi and Louisiana in the antebellum United States. During the American Civil War he joined the Confederate States of America and was assigned the responsibility of improving sanitary conditions in the camps about Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana. He was honored for his investigations into yellow fever and Asiatic cholera. Cartwright was also considered to have been an antebellum authority on the health problems of African Americans, but that work has since been discredited.[1]


Cartwright was born in Fairfax County, Virginia, to Mr. and Mrs. John S. Cartwright. Prior to 1812, he began his medical training as an apprentice to Dr. John Brewer. Thereafter, he was apprenticed to Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia. He also attended the University of Pennsylvania Medical School which Rush helped to establish in 1765 with his friend Benjamin Franklin. Cartwright was at one time a surgeon under General (later U.S. President) Andrew Jackson.

He practiced medicine in Huntsville, Alabama (Madison County), then Natchez, Mississippi (Adams County), and finally New Orleans, where he relocated in 1858.

Dr. Cartwright married the former Mary Wren in 1825, and they had at least one child. He died in Jackson, the Mississippi state capital, two months before the surrender of Vicksburg to the forces of General Ulysses S. Grant.


Even though he had studied under the abolitionist Dr. Rush in Philadelphia, Cartwright contributed ideas and literature to those southerners who defended slavery. He is now most well-known for describing a condition he called "drapetomania", or the desire to flee from servitude. According to Cartwright, drapetomania is a mental disorder akin to alienation. He said that slaves should be kept in a submissive state and treated like children, with "care, kindness, attention, and humanity to prevent and cure them from running away." If they nonetheless became dissatisfied with their condition, they should be whipped as a prevention against running away.[2] In describing his theory and cure for drapetomania, Cartwright relied on passages of scripture dealing with slavery.

Cartwright also described another disorder, "Dysaethesia aethiopica", a disease "affecting both mind and body." Cartwright used his theory to explain the apparent lack of work ethic among slaves.[3] Dysaethesia aethiopica, "called by overseers 'rascality'," was characterized by partial insensitivity of the skin and "so great a hebetude of the intellectual faculties, as to be like a person half asleep." Other symptoms included "lesions of the body discoverable to the medical observer, which are always present and sufficient to account for the symptoms."[4][5]

According to Cartwright, dysaethesia aethiopica was "much more prevalent among free negroes living in clusters by themselves, than among slaves on our plantations, and attacks only such slaves as live like free negroes in regard to diet, drinks, exercise, etc." — indeed, according to Cartwright, "nearly all [free negroes] are more or less afflicted with it, that have not got some white person to direct and to take care of them."

In the antebellum period, southerners largely considered blacks to be racially inferior to whites. They sought "scientific proof" for their argument to counter the "human rights" claims of the abolitionists. Cartwright’s explanation concentrated on psychological issues of African Americans. In his Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race, Cartwright viewed blacks as people largely incapable of performing certain duties. His arguments were in line with those of such pro-slavery defenders as Thomas Roderick Dew of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and James D.B. DeBow, a southern magazine publisher. Cartwright contributed some fourteen articles to DeBow's Review between 1851 and 1862, primarily on sanitary conditions.

Cultural depictions of Samuel A. Cartwright[]


  1. Miller, Randall M.; John David Smith (1997). Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. Westport: Praeger. 
  2. Cartwright, Samuel (1851). "Report on the Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race". DeBow's Review XI. Retrieved 2007-10-04. 
  3. Pilgrim, David. "Question of the Month: Drapetomania". Jim Crow Museum. Jim Crow Museum, Ferris State University. November 2005.
  4. Template:Citebook
  5. Template:Citebook


  • "Samuel Adolphus Cartwright", A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, Vol. 1 (1988), p. 157
  • Dictionary of American Medical Biography", Vol. 1 (1984)
  • Mary Louise Marshall, "Samuel A. Cartwright and States' Rights Medicine", New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, XC (1940–1941)
  • University of Dayton
  • Miami-Dade County Public Schools

External links[]

  • Drapetomania, the original article as printed in The New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal. (Google Books)