Shortly after New Orleans physician Samuel Cartwright discovered a new disease in 1850, he realized that like all medical pioneers he faced a special burden. "In noticing a disease not heretofore classed among the long list of maladies that man is subject to," he told a gathering of the Medical Association of Louisiana, "it was necessary to have a new term to express it." Cartwright could have followed the example of many of his peers and named the malady for himself, but he decided instead to exercise the ancient Greek he'd learned while being educated in Philadelphia. He took two words—drapetes, meaning "runaway slave," and the more familiar mania—and fashioned drapetomania, "the disease causing Negroes to run away."
The new disease, Cartwright reported in The New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, had one diagnostic symptom—"absconding from service"—and a few secondary ones, including a sulkiness and dissatisfaction that appeared just prior to the slaves' flight. Through careful observations made when he practiced in Maryland, he developed a crude epidemiology and concluded that environmental factors could play a role in the onset of drapetomania.
But the most evenhanded treatment would not prevent all cases, and for those whose illness was "without cause," Cartwright had a prescription: "whipping the devil out of them."
Lest anyone doubt that drapetomania was a real disease—and, evidently, some Northern doctors did—Cartwright offered proof. First of all, he said, we know that Negroes are descended from the people of Canaan, a name that means "submissive knee-bender," so it's clear what God had in mind for the race. And in case a reader subscribed to the notion, taught in the "northern hornbooks in Medicine," that "the Negro is only a lampblacked white man . . . requiring nothing but liberty and equality—social and political—to wash him white," Cartwright called as witnesses the prominent European doctors who had "demonstrated, by dissection, so great a difference between the Negro and the white man as to induce the majority of naturalists to refer him to a different species." Africans' blood was darker, he said, and "the membranes, tendons, and aponeuroses, so brilliantly white in the Caucasian race, have a livid cloudiness in the African." This historical and biological evidence, Cartwright concluded, proved that running away is neither willfulness nor the normal human striving for freedom, but illness plain and simple.
Drapetomania was never considered for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association's compendium of mental illnesses, but that may be only because there was no such book in 1850. (Indeed, the Association of Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, the organization that eventually became the APA, was only six years old at the time, and the word psychiatry had just come into use.) Certainly it met many of the criteria for inclusion. It was a condition that caused distress for a certain group of people. It had a known and predictable onset, course, and outcome.
Its diagnostic criteria could be listed in clear language that a doctor could use, for instance, to distinguish normal stubbornness from pathological dissatisfaction, or to determine whether a slave was running away because he was sick or just evil. Many people besides Cartwright had observed it. Its discovery was announced in a respected professional journal. Its definition was precise enough to allow other doctors to develop tests that distinguished normal (or, as the DSM puts it, expectable) from disordered dissatisfaction, and to conduct research that confirmed (or didn't) that most runaway slaves had been sulky prior to absconding, or that slaves treated too familiarly or too cruelly were more likely to contract drapetomania, or that whipping prevented the disease from running its full course. Still other doctors might have recommended potions that would relieve its symptoms. As the years wore on, some doctors might have objected that the disease pathologized a normal response to atrocious conditions, while others might have fought bitterly and publicly over smaller issues: whether or not defiance also belonged on the list of criteria; whether to add Dr. Cartwright's other discovery, dyaesthesia aethiopica, the malady causing slaves to "slight their work," to the diagnostic manual; which gene predisposed slaves to drapetomania and dyaesthesia; where the thirst for freedom could be found in the brain; and, perhaps, whether or not these were real illnesses or only constructs useful to understanding what Dr. Cartwright called the "diseases and physical peculiarities of the Negro race."
Dr. Cartwright's disease, in short, and the promise it held out—that a widely observed form of suffering with significant impact on individuals and society could be brought under the light of science, named and identified, understood and controlled, and certain thorny moral questions about the nature of slavery sidestepped in the bargain—might have spawned an entire industry. A small one, perhaps, but one that would have no doubt been profitable to slave owners, to doctors, maybe even to slaves grateful for their emancipation from their unnatural lust for freedom—and, above all, to the corporation that owned the right to name and define our psychological troubles, and to sell the book to anyone with the money to buy it and the power to wield its names.