In 1861 Samuel A. Cartwright, an American physician, described a mental illness he called “drapetomania.” As Wikipedia points out, the term derived from drapetes, Greek for “runaway [slave],” and mania for madness or frenzy.
Thus Cartwright defined drapetomania as “the disease causing negroes to run away [from captivity].”
“[I]ts diagnostic symptom, the absconding from service, is well known to our planters and overseers,” Cartwright wrote in a much-distributed paper delivered before the Medical Association of Louisiana. Yet this disorder was “unknown to our medical authorities.”
Cartwright thought slave owners caused the illness by making “themselves too familiar with [slaves], treating them as equals.” Drapetomania could also be induced “if [the master] abuses the power which God has given him over his fellow-man, by being cruel to him, or punishing him in anger, or by neglecting to protect him from the wanton abuses of his fellow-servants and all others, or by denying him the usual comforts and necessaries of life.”
He had ideas about proper prevention and treatment:
[I]f his master or overseer be kind and gracious in his hearing towards him, without condescension, and at the sane [sic] time ministers to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away. . . .
If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy in all after-time. . . . They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children, with care, kindness, attention and humanity, to prevent and cure them from running away. [Emphasis added.]
The identification of drapetomania is not Cartwright’s only achievement. He also “discovered” “dysaethesia aethiopica, or hebetude of mind and obtuse sensibility of body—a disease peculiar to negroes—called by overseers, ‘rascality.’” Unlike drapetomania, dysatheisa afflicted mainly free blacks. “The disease is the natural offspring of negro liberty–the liberty to be idle, to wallow in filth, and to indulge in improper food and drinks.”
Cartwright, I dare say, was a quack, ever ready to ascribe to disease behavior he found disturbing. A far more informative discussion of the conduct of slaves can be found in Thaddeus Russell’s fascinating book, A Renegade History of the United States.
Have things changed much since Cartwright’s day? You decide.
The current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) lists Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) under “disorders usually first diagnosed infancy, childhood, or adolescence.” (Hat tip: Bryan Hyde .) According to the manual,
The essential feature of Oppositional Defiant Disorder is a recurrent pattern of negativistic, defiant, disobedient, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that persist for at least six months. It is characterized by the frequent occurrence of at least four of the following behaviors: losing temper, arguing with adults, actively defying or refusing to comply with the requests or rules of adults, deliberately doing things that will annoy other people, blaming others for his or her own mistakes or misbehavior, being touchy or easily annoyed by others, being angry and resentful, or being spiteful and vindictive.
Marked on a Curve
In diagnosing this disorder, children are marked on a curve. “To qualify for [ODD], the behaviors must occur more frequently than is typically observed in individuals of comparable age and developmental level” (emphasis added). The behaviors must also be seen to impair “social, academic, and occupational functioning.”