Penn Medicine and the Afterlives of Slavery



In 2017, pioneering undergraduate researchers at the University of Pennsylvania launched the Penn and Slavery Project (P&SP) to uncover, document, and examine the University’s entanglements with the institution of slavery.  Led by Professor Kathleen Brown, the P&SP joined a growing group of colleges and universities examining their connections to slavery.  Through their initial research, P&SP students identified connections between Penn’s Medical School and enslavement specifically. These students discovered slaveholding trustees and faculty, fundraising efforts which solicited slaveholders’ donations, and the university’s contributions to the production of racialized medical knowledge and practice. Enslavement was integral to the development of Penn’s Medical School and its students.



In 2018 Dr. Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania, charged Professor Dorothy Roberts to examine “the impact of the medical school’s pedagogy, research and medical practices on alumni and its lingering effects on medicine.” In 2019, Professor Roberts launched a new initiative, the Penn Medicine and the Afterlives of Slavery Project (PMAS).  This project focuses exclusively on Penn’s Medical School, its historical entanglements with the institution of slavery and the continuing consequences of this connection in the production of medical knowledge, practice, and policies to date.


About Penn Medicine and the Afterlives of Slavery Project (PMAS)

Given that Penn Medical School was the first of its kind in colonial America, the University of Pennsylvania has a special responsibility to not only uncover its relationship to enslavement but to lead other institutions in similar efforts.  The University has a higher mission to repair the harms of these entanglements. PMAS builds upon the original work of P&SP researchers to:

  • Honestly acknowledge  Penn Medical School’s entanglement with racial injustice in the history of medicine.
  • Document the development and circulation of race-based medical theories and practices that can be traced back to slavery.
  • Document the unacknowledged contributions of African Americans.
  • Use this research to make substantive changes within the institution and medical education, practice, and policies more broadly.


Our mission is two-fold.  First, we research and document the School of Medicine’s history and its connections to enslavement. Additionally, the project researches and documents the institution’s use and treatment of African descended people—as patients and as medical practitioners. We seek to re-humanize these individuals and re-center their contributions in the history and development of modern medicine—at Penn specifically and in the United States generally.


Secondly, we operationalize our research, cultivated to disseminate to the world-wide public.  Such historical research cannot stand on its own.  It must be employed to make a significant change in the field of medicine.  With a more complete understanding of the history and legacy of enslavement and its intersections with the history of medicine, this project offers recommendations on community relations, medical education and curriculum development, and medical research in diagnostics and treatment. 


This project aims to do much more than research the history and legacy of enslavement at the School of Medicine. We aim  to do something about the continued proliferation of race-based medicine. This project builds upon the groundbreaking and important research of Penn undergraduates, translating their research into feasible recommendations and solutions.  


From this in-depth institutional research, the project will then ask, “now what?” Using our findings, we will make recommendations to Penn, the medical profession, and policymakers around issues of 1) medical education and curriculum development which deals honestly and openly with race; 2) minority community engagement; and 3) addressing and solving implicit and explicit forms of bias at the multiple levels of health care delivery.


Our scope is both local and global, focusing primarily on the role of Penn’s early medical school in the production of race-based medical knowledge and its circulation in the United States and around the world.  Additionally, the project not only addresses the history of enslavement and Penn’s Medical School but also the continued consequences of enslavement reverberating in medicine to date.



This project proceeds on two fronts.  The first is to research and document the history and legacy of enslavement at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine to the current day.  The second is to use this research to make significant changes in the myriad ways race manifests itself in medical theory and practice.  To do this, the overall project consists of six areas of focus outlined below.