Odd leaves from the life of a Louisiana "swamp doctor" (circa 1850)
June 20, 2014 2:33 PM   Subscribe

One of the most intriguing personalities in Southern medical history of the nineteenth century is Dr. Henry Clay Lewis (1825-1850), whose fame rests not on his accomplishments in medicine, but upon his humorous writings published under the pseudonym "Madison Tensas, M.D., the Louisiana Swamp Doctor." Though Lewis was a practicing doctor, his true identity as the author of the "Southern grotesque" (previously) pieces was not known until after his death. His works pre-dated the Southern Gothic style (prev), and are unusual for their time in that "[Lewis] presents his black characters with as much pain and grotesqueness as his white characters, steering away from the time's usual stereotypes." You can read a longer biography and a summary of his style here, or just dive in and read his works, which available online in Odd leaves from the life of a Louisiana "swamp doctor", which was also published as The swamp doctor's adventures in the South-west (also available with fourteen illustrations) on Archive.org.
posted by filthy light thief (6 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Haven't clicked through all the links, but as the daughter of a primary care doctor in Louisiana who is also a history dork, and who is also really into researching and writing about medical stuff, sometimes in a historical vein, THANKS FOR THIS.
posted by Sara C. at 4:43 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read one at random, and it didn't seem that different to the usual stereotypes of the time:
Shortly after I commenced practice, I was sent for in a great hurry to see a case of fits in the person of a negro wench, belonging to a plantation a few miles from where I was located...

I remarked, as a peculiarity of her case, that on Sundays, and when rain prevented her being put out to work, she escaped the attack ; but hardly could the hoe-handle salute her palm in the cotton-field, before she would be screeching, yelping, and struggling...

" Put her down on the bridge and let me examine her." It was done ; it required the united strength of the four negroes to hold her still whilst I made the necessary examination, the result of which confirmed my impression that she was simulating. I thundered almost in her ears, but she gave no answer, and I determined to put in execution my new plan of treatment.

"Pick her up and throw her in the bayou," I said, very clearly and precisely.

Knowing I rarely said what I did not mean, the negroes yet hesitated somewhat at the singular command, afraid either to obey or refuse. " Throw her in !" I yelled, giving a thundering stamp on the bridge.

No longer in doubt, the negroes picked up the blanket, and giving it a few preliminary swings, to acquire momentum, were about to cast away, when, with a loud yell, the case of fits burst from their hold and made tracks for the cotton-field. I am pretty fleet myself, as were the negroes, but that poor diseased invalid beat us all, and had hoed considerably on a row before we reached her. A liberal flagellation completed the cure, and she has never been troubled with fits since!
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:08 AM on June 21, 2014

Really? I read this as a somewhat sympathetic telling of someone who fakes an ailment to avoid some terrible work, and people who are unsure about throwing one of their community members into the water at the behest of someone they do not know.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:24 AM on June 21, 2014

Well, maybe it's because I watched "12 Years a Slave" lately, but I found it a bit disturbing. A slave tried to get a break from backbreaking toil by feigning illness, so he compelled her reluctant fellow slaves to take part in a mock execution, then had her whipped. Probably less amusing from the slaves' point of view.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:39 AM on June 21, 2014

I think it's basically impossible that a white physician in Louisiana before the Civil War would not write about slavery as it actually happened. If the author was a writer in 2014, writing about the antebellum south, and chose to include a lot of anecdotes like this as comic relief, I'd be the first to accuse said writer of being a despicable racist. But, you know, this shit happened in the time this guy was writing, and there'd be no reason for him to not discuss such things, any more than there would be a reason for an author today to avoid talking about a WalMart employee taking a "mental health day".

I'll also say that he handles the account with a degree of grace, not stooping to including humiliating dialect or giving it some kind of moral weight wherein the slave is wicked or stupid or childish for faking an illness. It just is what it is, which is probably the most humane way of talking about it.
posted by Sara C. at 10:27 AM on June 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Well, there's no humiliating dialect in that one, but there's little dialogue in it at all. Look at others:
Looking over, and answering the hail, I discerned first a mule, and then something which so closely resembled an ape or an ourang outang, that I was in doubt whether the voice had proceeded from it, until a repetition of the hail, this time coming unmistakeably from it, assured me that it was a human.

"Massa doctor at home?" yelled the voice.

"Yes, I am the doctor; what do you want?"

"Massa sent me with a letter to you."

Jumping in the skiff, a few vigorous strokes sent me to the opposite shore, where the singular being awaited my coming.

He was a negro dwarf of the most frightful appearance; his diminutive body was garnished with legs and arms of enormously disproportionate length; his face was hideous: a pair of tushes projected from either side of a double hare-lip; and taking him altogether, he was the nearest resemblance to the ourang outang mixed with the devil that human eyes ever dwelt upon. I could not look at him without feeling disgust.
Note that I never accused him of being a despicable racist, I just said that to me it didn't look that different to the usual stereotypes of the times.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:10 PM on June 21, 2014

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