Slavery and modern science


Slavery and modern science

Dr Derrick Aarons

Sunday, August 18, 2019

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MANY of us celebrated Emancipation Day at the start of this month without being aware of the connection between the transatlantic slave trade and the development of modern science.

The enlightenment view of modern science is that it is free of embedded or entrenched values (that is 'value-free') and is progressive. However, 19th century American doctors experimented on slaves; Nazi doctors exploited concentration camp inmates; nuclear physicists were responsible for the destruction of the Japanese city of Hiroshima; and American doctors experimented on poor, rural black men in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Although many may argue that the outcome of such work was clearly of great benefit to mankind, the process used to achieve the beneficial knowledge and positive outcome was morally reprehensible to many individuals.


Now recent scholarship and research into natural history has revealed that early botanists and biologists collected and catalogued numerous specimens that were gathered by the officers and surgeons serving on the slave ships that visited Africa and the Americas on the triangular slave trade routes.

This history has been extensively documented by Kathleen Murphy, a science historian at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, USA, and published in the world-acclaimed journal Science.

Thousands of the scientific specimens collected through the slave trade still reside in many institutions, such as the Natural History Museum in London, and are still being used in genetic and taxonomic research.

Ironically, few people using the specimen collections in these research processes know of the origins of these specimens. Such research often involves a systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to gain new knowledge, establish facts, and reach new conclusions.


Historically, scientific studies of dyes and drugs often opened up new opportunities for slave traders. In the process, merchants eagerly sought natural resources to exploit overseas and often consulted scientists about the best ways to hunt for and cultivate novel resources. Quinine and other drugs were derived from tropical locations, and often helped European people to survive in those locations.

Further, the safer and more profitable a colony was, the more pervasive was its commercial activity. So, for instance, in such locations, slavery thrived and created a new demand for more slaves. Scientific research then not only depended on colonial slavery, but also enabled it and helped expand its reach.

Other interconnections, although more remote, were similarly as real. For example, the scientist Sir Isaac Newton relied upon the readings of the tide around the world when he developed his theory of gravity. Some of his important data came from the French slave colony of Martinique.

In fact, Newton was a paradigm figure of an isolated, non-travelling, sitting-at-his-desk genius, but he had access to numbers he would not have had access to were it not for the Atlantic slave trade.


Research has certainly brought much improvements in the services and treatments for many people. It has helped develop new tests for diagnosing diseases and new processes that can help people today as well as the children of tomorrow Hence, the benefits of research accrue to individuals here and now, as well as for future generations.

Despite all this, in the journal publication, co-researcher James Delbourgo of Rutgers University, USA, noted some of the sobering facts brought to light in this process.

While we have a tendency to always think about the history of science in a noble, progressive, and triumphant way, with the perception that it is always a force for good, the natural history of the process has not always been such. We should therefore be mindful of such a history as we plan for the future.

Dr Derrick Aarons MD, PhD, is a consultant bioethicist and family physician; a specialist in ethical issues in health care, research, and the life sciences; the health registrar and head of the health secretariat for the Turks and Caicos Islands, and a member of UNESCO's International Bioethics Committee.

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