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Book and Media Reviews
October 11, 2006


JAMA. 2006;296(14):1781-1786. doi:10.1001/jama.296.14.1784

In this deeply researched work, University of Rhode Island historian Marie Jenkins Schwartz presents much interesting information on gynecology and reproductive medicine in the antebellum South. She also relates this information to two themes that are familiar in the historical literature on slavery, “black resistance” and “the slave community.” And she adds a feminist perspective by presenting her research in the context of the debate over “who controls a woman's body.”

Although Southern whites regarded the provision of medical care as evidence of their benevolent concern for slaves, Professor Schwartz stresses that both doctors and masters also had selfish motives. Obstetric cases were not very lucrative, but doctors did receive fees for treating slaves and, equally important, used the opportunity to ingratiate themselves with planters and to assert their own professional authority over the black midwives of the slave quarters. The masters, for their part, recognized that the slave system required able-bodied workers. Especially after the United States criminalized the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808, the system could continue only if sufficient babies were born in bondage. As it happened, the number of slaves doubled every 25 years during the first half of the 19th century. The American South thus became one of only a few slave societies throughout history in which there was a natural increase in the number of slaves.

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