Medical Racism

Medical Racism

The New York Times

Brent Staples

The worst racial atrocities that took place in the Jim Crow South were carried out by the medical establishment, not by night riders cloaked in sheets. Indeed, many more African-Americans were killed by racist medical policies than by all the lynch mobs that ever existed. Until the late 1960s, the American Medical Association tacitly endorsed rules that denied membership to black physicians in the South, thus depressing their numbers in specialties such as surgery and ensuring that black patients would continue to receive dangerously substandard care — or no care at all.

This subject is rarely discussed in film or on television. The director Steven Soderbergh deserves praise for taking it up in “The Knick,” an absorbing, visually lush medical drama on Cinemax set in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. The show centers on the self-obsessed, drug-addicted Dr. Thackery — compellingly played by Clive Owen — who leads a surgical team at the Knickerbocker, a hospital whose wards are awash in the immigrant poor. Known to his comrades as Thack, the junkie surgeon plans to carve his way to immortality, one bloody patient at a time, while lecturing to the rapt audience of doctors who crowd in to view his handiwork in the operating theater.

A racist, he is repulsed when a wealthy hospital patron forces him to accept the services of a talented black surgeon, Dr. Algernon Edwards — André Holland — even though Edwards has trained abroad and mastered techniques that his white betters have yet to learn…

…Critics who wonder about the real-world antecedents of the Dr. Edwards character should look to Dr. Charles Drew (1904-1950). A towering figure in medical history, Dr. Drew helped to make blood banks possible by developing efficient ways to process and store vast amounts of blood plasma. He began his career in the 1930s when surgical residencies at white hospitals in New York — even those that treated black patients — were officially closed to black physicians. Charming and urbane, Dr. Drew wrangled what a contemporary later described as a “bootleg” residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, thanks to a white doctor who took an interest in him. The fact that he was light-skinned enough to be mistaken for white was clearly an asset; it made it easier for him to find acceptance with white colleagues and patients…

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