Edinburgh-trained doctors on Caribbean plantations

William Wright’s memoir reproduced with permission of Royal College of Physicians

by Daisy Chamberlain

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many medical graduates from the University of Edinburgh travelled to the West Indies (modern-day Caribbean) for work. At first, they practiced exclusively on white inhabitants, but it was eventually expected that planters would hire doctors to treat enslaved Africans.

The essays, memoirs, and letters of Edinburgh-trained plantation doctors reveal their contributions to the production of racialized knowledge of black bodies. The majority of Edinburgh-trained West Indian doctors who established practices were white men whose fathers were planters or government or military officials. Moreover, Edinburgh-trained doctors of colour faced racial discrimination in their search for employment in the West Indies. John Baptiste Philip (who graduated from Edinburgh in 1815), lamented that for the white man, “his colour alone will pave the way for his admission by the Board” and “will prove indubitably his acquaintance with all the arts and mysteries of medicine”.

Although Philip challenged these categories, most texts contributed to the solidification of racial stereotypes and the justification of racial subjugation, presenting racial difference as medical or scientific “fact”.

The medical treatment of enslaved people was not humanitarian, but an important means through which to counter anti-slavery agitation. Many Edinburgh-trained doctors were invested politically and financially in the slave trade. Not only had it provided them with lucrative business, but a number of them were owners of slaves themselves. William Wright, for example, attended lectures at Edinburgh in 1756. Within six months of establishing his medical practice Wright was the owner of four slaves. This number had increased to 15 in 1767 and 33 by 1771. In a letter to his brother dated 10 May 1792, Wright wrote that to end the slave trade would be “fatal to our commerce, ruinous to our islands, destructive to our countrymen, and no way serving the cause of humanity”.

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