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Hidden History of Medicine, Slavery, and Resistance

Carolyn Roberts, Ph.D. presenting at Science Pub RVA, January 30, 2019 (Photography: Louise Ricks)

Carolyn Roberts, Yale University historian of medicine, talks about some of the hidden histories of African American medical practitioners during slavery. Dr. Roberts explores how the enslaved used botanical knowledge, herbal therapies, and spirituality as ways to resist brutality, cure disease, and heal their communities.  She vividly traces how the slave trade contributed to the development of the pharmaceutical industry, the modernization of medicine, and the advancement of natural history.

Presented by Science Matters, a multimedia educational initiative of the Community Idea Stations, Central Virginia's PBS & NPR stations. 

Carolyn Roberts, Ph.D.Carolyn Roberts is a historian of medicine with a joint appointment in the departments of History/History of Science and Medicine and African American Studies of Yale University. Professor Roberts’ research interests concern early modern medicine where she explores themes of race and slavery, natural history and botany, and African indigenous knowledge in the Atlantic world.

She is currently working on a book project called To Heal and To Harm: Medicine, Knowledge, and Power in the Atlantic Slave Trade. This manuscript represents the first full-length study of the history of medicine in the British slave trade. The book’s narrative is centered around the pharmaceutical and medical labor performed by a largely unknown group of African and British women and men, both enslaved and free.  In studying their labor, her project illustrates how the slave trade functioned as an insidious, and even ghostly, knowledge project which pushed the boundaries of pharmacy, surgery, and natural history.  Her work highlights how the slave trade contributed to the development of the pharmaceutical industry, the modernization of medicine, and the advancement of natural history.

Professor Roberts is an award-winning educator who teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the history of medicine from the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries.  She received an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, an M.A. from Andover Newton Theological School, and a B.A. from Dartmouth College.


Carolyn Roberts, Ph.D. and Karen Rader, Ph.D. (Photography: Louise Ricks)


This program was held on January 30, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia and is a part of a series of eight science cafes in partnership between Science Pub RVA and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Science, Technology and Society Program, a unit of the College of Humanities and Sciences, and is supported by a National Science Foundation grant (#1611953).


Photo Caption: Before the event became standing-room-only, guests enjoyed food, drink, and meeting other curious minds.  (Photography: Louise Ricks)


More photos from this event can be found here. To attend future Science Pub RVA programs, sign up for email announcements. Follow Science Matters on Facebook to connect with more science news in Central Virginia.


Books and authors mentioned by Dr. Roberts during the Q&A

Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations by Sharla M. Fett

Secret Curse of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth Century Atlantic World by Londa Schiebinger

Articles by Judith Carney


Related PBS and NPR content:

Ten "Must Watch" Black History Documentaries

Why Schools Fail to Teach Slavery’s Hard History