Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright of Natchez was the most prominent physician, surgeon, and medical scientist in antebellum Mississippi. A prolific writer, he published more than eighty articles in the national medical press on a spectrum of topics, winning many medals and prizes for his original research and contributions to medical literature. His influence extended beyond medicine, and he involved himself in state and national politics, becoming a widely known slavery advocate and publishing articles on slave physiology and health.
Born on 30 November 1793 in Fairfax County, Virginia, Cartwright was the son of Rev. John S. Cartwright. His early education focused on Latin and Greek, and by his late teenage years he had begun studying medicine. His medical education was disrupted by his enlistment in the War of 1812. Battlefield injuries left him with a mild deafness that worsened progressively over the rest of his life. After completing his military service, he resumed his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the first US medical school. Cartwright received additional medical training in Maryland and at Kentucky’s Transylvania University. He began practicing medicine in Huntsville, Alabama, and soon moved to Mississippi, practicing briefly in Monroe County in 1822. Within a year he established himself in Natchez, where he practiced for more than a quarter century and earned a reputation as the greatest medical mind in the Old Southwest.
In 1825 Cartwright married Mary Wren of Natchez. He wore many hats in the city and often spoke out regarding the period’s divisive politics. Politically, he was an enthusiastic Democrat and helped establish the Mississippi Statesman and Natchez Gazette, Mississippi’s first Jacksonian newspaper. According to a contemporary journalist, Cartwright could compose “a dissertation on Cayenne Pepper or Democracy with equal facility.” He became Natchez’s most prominent physician, earning a medical reputation that surpassed even that of his longtime friend, physician-historian John W. Monette. Among other prominent citizens, Cartwright’s patients included his friends Jefferson Davis and Gov. John A. Quitman, caring for him during his final illness.
Soon after Cartwright’s arrival in Natchez, the city suffered a yellow fever epidemic, and other outbreaks occurred through the 1830s. His training in Philadelphia had focused on the theories of Benjamin Rush, then considered the national authority on the disease, and Cartwright’s treatment methods, coupled with his scholarly publications examining the epidemics, soon earned him wide acclaim.
As early as 1822 his medical essays began attracting national attention, praise, and prizes. In addition to yellow fever, he published articles on cholera, diphtheria, syphilis, the uses of iodine, surgical removal of ovarian tumors, treatment of rectovaginal fistulas, and a “sugar-house cure of consumption.” His successful treatments and observations had great influence both nationally and in Europe. In 1831, for example, Cartwright announced in the American Journal of Medical Science a “contrivance” to drain the “thorax of liquids, excluding at the same time the admission of air,” and this essay subsequently received notice in the London Medical Gazette. He conducted extensive physiologic experiments on alligators, hoping to better understand human physiology, and used the results to develop theories on circulation and respiration. By 1836 his successful and lucrative medical practice allowed him to take his family on an eighteen-month European tour, which he documented in a two-volume diary. In January 1846 Cartwright was elected as first president of the Mississippi State Medical Society, organized in Jackson.
Cartwright focused his writings on the principal diseases of the southern states, and his peers recognized him as a specialist in southern diseases and medicine. His experience and research led him to conclude that the region’s climate resulted in different diseases than existed the North and that southern physicians consequently required different medical training than that provided in northern medical schools. He also stressed that blacks and whites were physiologically different and required different medical approaches. Nineteenth-century southern physicians had long discussed the role of ethnicity in medicine and health, noting decades before the Civil War that many black patients had different disease susceptibilities and medical outcomes than their white neighbors. As the nation drifted toward sectional conflict, doctors often attempted to use these ideas to provide scientific justifications for slavery and black inferiority. Cartwright revealed his racial views in an series of letters to Rev. William Winans published in 1843. Cartwright contended that the relation of master and slave was “not based upon human but Divine law” and concluded that the Bible doomed the “Ethiopian” to be a “servant of servants.” Cartwright’s extreme racial and prosouthern political views mingled with his medical research into what one contemporary physician-editor, Dr. John Bell of Philadelphia, derided as “States’ Rights Medicine.”
In the fall of 1848 Cartwright traveled to New Orleans in the midst of a cholera epidemic to study the disease at Charity Hospital and to witness autopsies on the cholera dead. Falling in love with the Crescent City, he decided to relocate his practice there and opened an office on Canal Street. The following year he published a forty-page book, The Pathology and Treatment of Cholera; with an Appendix Containing His Latest Instructions to Planters and Heads of Families in Regard to Its Prevention and Cure. At this time he entered his most prolific period of medical writing, publishing articles on diverse medical and surgical matters. However, his writing increasingly centered on the ethnology of disease, specifically the physiology of the “negro race” and the “Ethiopian.” In December 1849 the Louisiana State Medical Society appointed Cartwright to chair a committee to study the “Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race.” He published this report as a series of controversial articles in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal from 1850 to 1853. He coined terms such as drapetomania (the “disease causing negroes to run away”) and dysaesthesia Aethiopis (a condition causing rascality). In 1851 Cartwright was appointed professor of “diseases of the Negro” at the University of Louisiana (now Tulane University). This appointment at a respected medical school reinforced his position as a national authority on black diseases and medicine.
By the time the Civil War erupted, Cartwright’s age and poor general health prevented his active service in the Confederate Army. In 1862 he advised his old friend and patient, Confederate president Jefferson Davis, that the Confederacy should utilize slaves as soldiers in place of “our tenderly bred gentlemen.” On 31 December 1862 Davis asked Cartwright to serve as surgeon general of the Confederacy’s Department of the West, then under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. By the end of January Cartwright had established himself in Jackson, Mississippi, and begun an extensive inspection of the medical conditions of Johnston’s armies, which involved an initial three-month study of the camps and hospitals serving such posts as Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and Grand Gulf. His appointment was not without controversy, with established physician officers of higher rank resenting his broad powers and often refusing to cooperate with his inspections. Despite his frail health and near total deafness, he committed himself fully to his work. While examining camps at Vicksburg, the sixty-nine-year-old physician suddenly took ill, and he died at a private residence near Jackson on 2 May 1863.
- Samuel A. Cartwright, in Cotton Is King, and Proslavery Arguments, ed. E. N. Elliott (1860)
- Family Papers of Samuel A. Cartwright, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge
- Lucius M. Lampton, Journal of the Mississippi State Medical Association (February 2006)
- Mary Louise Marshall, Louisiana State Medical Journal 93 (1940)
- Ronald L. Numbers and Todd L. Savitt, eds., Science and Medicine in the Old South (1989)
- Kenneth Williams, American National Biography (1999)