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Juneteenth: Time for American Psychiatric Association to repudiate slave-owning “Father of Psychiatry”

More than 175 years after its founding, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) issued a public apology in January for psychiatry’s “role in perpetrating structural racism” and said it hoped to make amends.

Here’s a suggestion to the APA: repudiate and discontinue all symbolic association with Dr. Benjamin Rush, the slave-owning “Father of American Psychiatry” who is responsible for the “scientific racism” at the very root of the structural racism in psychiatry that the APA now says it regrets.

And what better time to cut psychiatry’s ties to Rush than on America’s first nationwide celebration of Juneteenth, a day that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States.

Until 2015, a seal with the image of Benjamin Rush served as the APA’s logo, and the APA still presents a Benjamin Rush award at its annual meeting.

The man in whose honor this APA award is bestowed bought a child slave, William Grubber, in the early- to mid-1770s, scholars believe, and owned him for some two decades.  Rush released Grubber from slavery in 1794, only after receiving, in his words, “a just compensation for my having paid for him the full price of a slave for life.”  In other words, Rush made sure he got his money’s worth from his slave before allowing him to go free.

However, Rush’s transgressions against African Americans go far beyond the human rights abuse of enslaving another human being.  He established a supposed biological justification for racism, setting a precedent for later psychiatrists and psychologists and their subsequent forms of “scientific racism” to oppress Blacks.

In 1792, Rush declared that Blacks suffered from a disease he called “negritude” that he theorized was caused by a variant of leprosy, the cure of which was when Blacks’ skin turned white.  Rush based his view in part on the work of another scientist who had applied a harsh and corrosive acid to the skin and hair of an African American man to turn him “white.”

With his view, Rush believed Blacks should not intermarry with other races because this supposed disease could infect their children.

Rush considered that African Americans were able to easily endure surgical operations and pain, labeling this “pathological insensibility.”

America’s first psychiatrist also treated his patients  with darkness, solitary confinement, and a special technique of forcing the patient to stand erect for two to three days at a time, poking them with sharp pointed nails to keep them from sleeping – a technique borrowed from a British procedure for taming horses.  He invented the “tranquilizer” chair into which the patient was strapped hand and foot, along with a device to hold the head immobile.

Benjamin Rush was apparently unable to recognize the human rights abuses he was committing.

By failing to disavow him, the APA may be revealing that it is as blind to human rights abuses as Rush was.