Sex, Sickness, and Slavery

Illness in the Antebellum South
Author: Marli F. Weiner
with Mazie Hough
How white Southern doctors used science to defend slavery
Cloth – $125
Paper – $35
eBook – $19.95
Publication Date
Paperback: 09/15/2014
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About the Book

Marli F. Weiner skillfully integrates the history of medicine with social and intellectual history in this study of how race and sex complicated medical treatment in the antebellum South. Sex, Sickness, and Slavery argues that Southern physicians' scientific training and practice uniquely entitled them to formulate medical justification for the imbalanced racial hierarchies of the period. Challenged with both helping to preserve the slave system (by acknowledging and preserving clear distinctions of race and sex) and enhancing their own authority (with correct medical diagnoses and effective treatment), doctors sought to understand bodies that did not necessarily fit into neat dichotomies or agree with suggested treatments.

Focusing on Southern states from Virginia to Alabama, Weiner examines medical and lay perspectives on the body through a range of sources, including medical journals, notes, diaries, daybooks, and letters. These personal and revealing sources show how physicians, medical students, and patients--both free whites and slaves--felt about vulnerability to disease and mental illnesses, how bodily differences between races and sexes were explained, and how emotions, common sense, working conditions, and climate were understood to have an effect on the body.

Physicians' authority did not go uncontested, however. Weiner also describes the ways in which laypeople, both black and white, resisted medical authority, clearly refusing to cede explanatory power to doctors without measuring medical views against their own bodily experiences or personal beliefs. Expertly drawing the dynamic tensions during this period in which Southern culture and the demands of slavery often trumped science, Weiner explores how doctors struggled with contradictions as medicine became a key arena for debate over the meanings of male and female, sick and well, black and white, North and South.

About the Author

Marli F. Weiner (1953-2009) was Adelaide and Alan Bird Professor of History at the University of Maine and the author of several books, including Place and Gender: Women in Maine History and Plantation Women: South Carolina Mistresses and Slaves, 1830-1880. Mazie Hough is an assistant professor of history and women's studies and the associate director of the Women in the Curriculum and Women's Studies program at the University of Maine. She is the author of Rural Unwed Mothers: An American Experience, 1870-1950.

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Mistresses and Slaves cover


"This book is a valuable addition to existing scholarship on science, race, and sex. . . .Highly recommended."--Choice

"A powerful case for the importance of medical men and ideas in undergirding slavery and white supremacy."--Southern Spaces

"Weiner and Hough excel at incorporating source material from collected African American folklore, medical journal articles, diary entries, and medical guidebooks into their narrative. An accessible and clear account of the unequivocal ties between the ascendancy of medical professionalism and authority by highlighting the experiences of traditionally marginalized bodies within the politically turbulent southern context."--The Journal of American History

"A masterful guide to the particularities of southern medicine on the eve of the Civil War. Historians of the South, medicine, gender, and race will welcome it."--Ohio Valley History

"Weiner's study makes a significant and thoughtful addition to the racial and gender politics of medical practice in the antebellum South."--Reviews in American History

"A unique look at the role of the medical institution in fulfilling the antebellum Southern requirement of unquestionable categorization of bodies to continue a way of life. Sex, Sickness, and Slavery shows that the importance of one institution in maintaining a status quo cannot be taken for granted."--Southern Historian

"In this beautifully written book, Weiner details how physicians wrote and thought about the illnesses of slaves and women. Sex, Sickness, and Slavery joines a distinguished body of scholarship that shows how intellectual power in the South was mobilized in support of slavery."--The Historian

"Weiner provides an ambitious and well-researched study of the relationship between the antebellum social order and medical discourse on race, gender, and illness in the South."--The Journal of Southern History

"With a thorough analysis of a breadth of evidence, the authors effectively prove their thesis and raise many other striking points along the way. . . . Especially valuable is their analysis of how African American slaves understood health and illness and how their views differed from those of white physicians."--Florida Historical Quarterly


"Marli F. Weiner takes up questions of the body, sex, and race with insight and sophistication, leading the reader through a persuasive reading of physicians' medical reasoning and political self-interest. She convincingly reveals physicians as major political actors in this period and shows how science underwrote the power of white men."--Steven M. Stowe, Doctoring the South: Southern Physicians and Everyday Medicine in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

"Imaginatively conceived and executed, Sex, Sickness, and Slavery provides a very interesting and useful view of antebellum Southern medical history. In doing so, she has given voice to whites and blacks, males and females, physicians and non-physicians in a way we have never heard before, leading to new insights into the complex relationships of medicine, slavery, and gender in the antebellum South."--Todd L. Savitt, author of Race and Medicine in Nineteenth- and early Twentieth-Century America