May 26, 2024

NEJM was complicit with American slavery, say historians

The New England Journal of Medicine is the oldest continuously published general medical journal in the world (since 1812) and arguably the most prestigious. However, distinction has not preserved it from some egregious errors, as it acknowledges in a series of historical mea culpas. It will publish a series of articles about the injustice and bias which have appeared in its pages. Its editorial declares:

Medicine in general and the Journal in particular have a mission — to relieve suffering and improve health. The injustice that we have helped disseminate in the past painfully undercuts this goal. We hope that in learning from our mistakes, we can prevent new ones.

Of all the sins to which the NEJM will confess, probably the worst is its casual acceptance of slavery. Although slavery was abolished in 1783 in Massachusetts, while the NEJM was founded in 1812, “Its founders’ families had profited from slavery. Its authors wrote casually about slavery. And it provided a prominent forum where physicians perpetuated race hierarchies before and after the Civil War.”

After emancipation and the Civil War, articles in the NEJM promoted racism. It was only in 1939 that the NEJM began to move against racial discrimination in state medical societies. “We cannot allow injustice to go uncontested again,” its article on slavery concludes.

The editors recognise that “it is far easier to confront biases in others than in ourselves” – and it is far easier to confront the sins of the past than to acknowledge the sins of the present. What will the NEJM say in 100 years’ time about its support for abortion, euthanasia, and embryo research?