Testimonies of Trauma: Enduring Tetanus in Colonial Haiti, 1781-1786

Age of Revolutions

By Will C. Little

Members of the Cercle des Philadelphes viewed colonial Haiti as a laboratory for medical experimentation and observation. French royal physicians first established this society in 1784 to bring academic science and medicine to the French Empire.[1] Their dissertations and pamphlets effectively used the trappings of scientific reasoning to articulate the contours of French authority over medical science in colonial Haiti. A key element of the Cercle’s push for knowledge collection in colonial Haiti centered on the exploitation of the enslaved, and the audience for these collections and dissertations were typically slaveholders.[2] Medicine was a central component of the Cercle’s publications, but they were particularly concerned with tetanus—a serious infection caused by Clostridium tetani, which can cause stiffness in muscles and is most commonly associated with lockjaw. This post explores how the Cercle des Philadelphes in colonial Haiti espoused ideals of a medical Enlightenment…

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