From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Slavery and Medical Care in Kentucky

Currently, no research is dedicated solely to the medical care of the enslaved in Kentucky. Medical care, health, nutrition, diseases, medicine, and the medical use of Negro corpses are discussed within the written histories of slavery and Kentucky in general.

Descriptions of individual cases and experiences may be found within the enslaved narratives, family papers and archives, medical journals, court cases, and Kentucky government publications. The cases described range from insignificant to exceptional, including some world-renowned cases, such as the first successful amputation at the hip joint that took place in Bardstown, KY.

According to Todd L. Savitt, "slaves had a fairly significant role in medical education and in experimental and radical medical and surgical practice in the Antebellum South." Dr. Ephraim McDowell of Danville, KY, who performed the first successful ovariotomy (removal of an ovary) on a white woman, Mrs. Jane Todd Crawford, in 1809. He perfected his technique while performing ovariotomies on African American women in Kentucky. When the Louisville (KY) Medical Institute was established in 1837, it was in part located in Louisville because of the large population of enslaved, freemen, and transient whites available for use in clinical teaching.

During the Civil War, African American recruits from Kentucky were said to be the healthiest and stoutest the Union Army medical examiners had seen, an observation that often led to the assumption that slavery was less harsh in Kentucky than other border and southern states.

For more see A History of Blacks in Kentucky, by M. B. Lucas; Birthing a Slave, by M. J. Schwartz; and T. L. Savitt, "The Use of Blacks for Medical Experimentation and Demonstration in the Old South," The Journal of Southern History, vol. 48,  issue 3 (August 1982), pp. 331-348 [quotation from p. 331].

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“Slavery and Medical Care in Kentucky,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 22, 2024,

Last modified: 2023-08-07 01:58:10