A Boy Named Glasgow & Dr. D’s Small Pox Experiments
from my work-in-progress (sort of)
Prince William and Kate are touring the West Indies at the moment, receiving a lukewarm welcome, especially in Jamaica, which is aiming to retire the royal family and become a republic. So it seems appropriate to remind people what slaves actually had to endure under British rule. Most of my work is focused on the tiny island of Carriacou, which is part of the nation of Grenada. Carriacou is so small that you would have to run laps around the island to make up a full marathon. At the bottom end of the island on Tyrell Bay, there is a village called Harvey Vale on the site of what was once a plantation worked by enslaved Africans. Harvey Vale connects the two stories sketched below. (This is an out-take from the book I am working on.)
A Boy Named Glasgow & Dr. D’s Small Pox Experiments
The British actor-writer Noel Clarke, who originally thought his family was from Trinidad, made a splash in 2017, when on the TV show Who Do You Think You Are, he managed to trace his family back to an enslaved boy named Glasgow born in 1821 on the Harvey Vale Estate on the West Indian island of Carriacou. Glasgow’s mother is listed as Genevieve 2nd, born about 1793 (she died in 1824 of inflammation of the stomach and bowels when she was about 31).
Harvey Vale was owned by a Scottish absentee planter and medical doctor named Thomas Davidson. In 1821 Walter McInnes was Davidson’s attorney-manager. After 1823, management of Harvey Vale passed to George McLean and thence to John Dallas, who signed the slave registry for 1829 “acting as agent for Thomas Davidson MD.” Dr. Davidson died shortly after and the estate went to his son William, described as a “lunatic” on The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery database. You can follow a boy named Glasgow through the various slave registries from 1821 until the slaves were legally emancipated in 1834 (these are on microfilm and available with a paid membership at Ancestry.com).
It is extremely unusual to be able to follow a particular slave after emancipation, but Noel Clarke’s family managed it. During the TV segment it was revealed that Glasgow became known as Glasgow Bedeau, who married Mary Ovid, and, in 1844, was able to buy a parcel of land next to the Harvey Vale Estate with an in-law named John Ovid. Three generations later Clarke’s paternal grandmother Menelvia Bedeau emigrated to Trinidad, probably during the oil boom in the 1940s, and married. Glasgow Bedeau died on June 17, 1889. Bedeau is still a prominent family name in Grenada and Carriacou, but obviously spread far and wide, especially in the UK and US, with a lively presence on various genealogy sites.
According Clarke’s family stories, John Dallas had a reputation for being “particularly brutal — even down to beating pregnant women.” But, as I say, Dallas came late in the game. And there is a more startling and sinister story attached to the plantation owner, Dr. Davidson, who had for a time lived on the estate and managed it himself.
Davidson performed medical experiments on slaves, deliberately infecting up to 1500 slaves on Carriacou, from infants and nursing mothers to adults up to the age of 60, practicing a form of what is called variolation for small pox to see if it would produce a lesser former of the disease. The Chinese had been using some form of variolation for centuries, and the practice had spread to the Middle East and into Africa. Some slaves arrived in the West Indies already inoculated in their home countries. But the British had not adopted the practice widely. It should be added that variolation is very different from and far more dangerous than vaccination, which was invented by Edward Jenner, using cow pox pathogens, in 1796.
But a decade before Jenner’s discovery, Davidson was running experiments of his own on his slaves (who no doubt had no say in the matter) with gruesome results that he recorded clinically in letters to colleagues in Britain. One such colleague published a paper based on Davidson’s experiments in The London Medical Journal in 1789 (and in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1791) entitled “Facts relative to the Small Pox. Communicated, in a Letter to Dr. Simmons, by Mr. Thomas Davidson, Surgeon in Carriacou.”
In the month of January, 1786, upwards of 1500 persons, the greater number of which were Negroes, were inculated for the small-pox upon this island; and at the time a Negro woman, then in the third or fourth month of her pregnancy, underwent the disease. She was inoculated on the 11th of January, 1786, and was delivered of a girl about the same time of July following. This Negro girl, when near three years of age, was inoculated in both arms on the 10th Mary, 1789, with fluid matter taken immediately from a person under the disease. Suppuration of the arms took place as usual, and about the night day the eruptive fever commenced, which, three days afterwards, was succeeded by a kind of eruption of smallpox, to the number of forty or fifty pustules.
From this Case it appears, that the small-pox, seizing the mother while pregnant, will not always be communicated to the child in utero; although there have been the most undoubted proofs of this having sometimes happened.
Another Case occurred here; which, as being somewhat singular, we shall also extract, together with Mr. D's remarks on it.
A boy, about five years of age, having been inoculated with variolous matter upon a cotten thread, his arms suppurated at the usual time, but no fever or eruption ensued. This induced the surgeon who attended him to apply some fresh fluid matter to the surface of the incisions which had bee formerly made in his arms, and which were then pretty large. The application of matter produced no other effect than another supperation, from wich fresh matter was furnished, and with it several others were inoculated, who all had the disease corresponding to the time when the operation was performed. Some weeks afterwards, this boy was infected naturally, and had a vast number of small pox.—Here the variolous matter, being applied to an inflamed surface, produced matter sui generis as usual, but was not absorbed, and therefore did not produce the disease. If this was really the case, it confirms an idea, suggested by some modern anatomists, that an inflamed surface is a bad absorbing surface.
Mr. D. observes of this general inoculation, that the strong and athletic had most fever, and, consequently, a greater number of pustules than the weakly and delicate, who had very little fever, and few small-pox; that persons of all ages, from four weeks to sixty years, were inoculated; and some women, who were as far advanced as the sixth month of their pregnancy. Several women also, he adds, were inoculated, who had children at the breast; and it was remarked that these children had more pustules than their mothers.
Davidson doesn’t appear to have recorded whether any of his patients died in the experiment, or how many were permanently disfigured or otherwise affected. He was not the only West Indian slave doctor to perform such experiments. Dr. John Bell experimented on tetanus victims on Carriacou. Stanford University historian Linda Schiebinger in her 2017 book Secret Cures of Slaves, People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World examines similar experiments performed on slaves by a Jamaican doctor named Prier in the 1760s, but as far as I know this is the first time anyone has noticed Dr. Davidson.
Carriacou, as I say, is a tiny island. But I am reminded here of Isabel Archer, in Portrait of a Lady, sitting among the ruins of a small church in Rome.
Small it was, in the large Roman record, and her haunting sense of the continuity of the human lot easily carried her from the less to the greater. She had become deeply, tenderly acquainted with Rome; it interfused and moderated her passion. But she had grown to think of it chiefly as the place where people had suffered. This was what came to her in the starved churches, where the marble columns, transferred from pagan ruins, seemed to offer her a companionship in endurance and the musty incense to be a compound of long-unanswered prayers .
Tragic and fascinating, Doug.
No stranger to these horrific health experiments, it still makes my heart ache reading them. Reading them is necessary, both to prevent history from repeating but also to gain deeper understanding and compassion for how the impact of those actions reverberate today with a justified fear and mistrust of the medical establishment, especially for marginalized communities. The mistreatment does not reside in so distant a past. Sadly, biases and historical traumas affect access to care (among other factors) even today as evidenced by the health inequity gaps experienced by racialized groups, COVID-19 being our most recent, but far from isolated, example. I'm glad to know you are writing about this important subject.