Medical Experts in the French Atlantic World
I am currently researching a book on medical practitioners in the French Atlantic World. Eighteenth-century medicine functioned as a crucial lens for understanding the world and a major tool for expanding European empires, the slave trade, and plantation slavery. Surgeons, once seen as no more than skilled artisans, elevated their status to rival that of physicians and plied their trade around the globe. Doctors gleaned knowledge from enslaved and indigenous healers and repackaged their cures for European markets. Plantation owners hired physicians and surgeons to extract maximum profits from enslaved people. Female midwives persisted in and professionalized their work, despite attacks by male midwives and surgeons. The state launched its first public health programs. Medicine was, in short, a crucial mechanism for the making of the modern world.
My research explores this history from the ground level. How did physicians, surgeons, and midwives position themselves as useful experts? How did medicine facilitate the exercise of colonial power? How does the practice of medical authority intersect with the histories of race and gender?
I have designed the project as a series of interlocking microhistories, with each chapter focusing on a single individual. My goal is to capture individuals in a variety of occupations working in a diverse array of locations around the Atlantic World, from surgeons on slave ships to midwives in provincial France. By studying each person as a window into their particular context, this book will map the construction of medical and moral authority on the ground.