NACCHO Book Review: Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present

by Emily Yox, MPH

Each month, NACCHO brings you a new public health book, read and reviewed by NACCHO staff. Book reviews in this series originally appeared on NACCHO Voice: The Word on Local health Departments and are republished here with permission.

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This book is one of the best historical compilations of the abuses of Black Americans done in the name of science and health. Coining the term “Iatrophobia” or the fear of medicine (iatros-healer and phobia-fear), Harriet Washington describes a litany of examples of doctors and scientists using Black Americans for experimentation and research. This is crucial background for anyone in public health because as Washington puts it “Although less rife, [medical abuse] remains a contemporary reality, and an ever-present possibility.”

Describing well-known abuses such as the Tuskegee syphilis study and abuses of slaves for the benefit of white medical care, Washington also discusses some abuses that were new to me. It was published in 2006, so it’s almost 15 years old, this book remains one of the most comprehensive histories of medical abuses toward Black Americans.

She concludes by describing the need for Black Americans to participate in sound and ethical medial research, as iatrophobia has resulted in a lack of diverse representation in medical research. Understanding their fear and the whole history behind it (vs. just assuming it is the result of an overreaction to the Tuskegee experiment alone) is crucial to reaching out to this community, especially because this iatrophobia has extended to acceptance of COVID vaccines, perhaps the most crucial public health initiative of our time.

Want to discuss this book and others? Head over to NACCHO’s Virtual Communities page and connect with peers.

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Emily Yox

Emily Yox is the Program Analyst for Global Health at the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) in Washington, DC. In her role, she encourages US local health departments to understand the valuable perspective that global health programs can provide to domestic public health work. Emily completed her MPH in Global Health Epidemiology and Disease Control at the George Washington University Milken Institute of Public Health. She also holds a BA in International Studies from American University, School of International Service.

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