From the March for Science to an Abolitionist Science

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Britt Rusert
April 20, 2017

While organizers in the United States have been planning this Saturday’s March for Science to advocate for the STEM fields and scientific funding under Trump, in Mexico, the Zapatistas have been interrogating how science might be used as a tool for political struggle and resistance. While the March for Science is organized on behalf of science, the Zapatistas’ interest is part of a long history in which activists have demanded that science itself be put in the service of the people and their interests. That history includes the 1970s anti-war and anti-corporate organization, Science for the People (SftP), the sickle-cell research and medical activism of the Black Panther Party, and as Steven Epstein has chronicled, the forms of lay expertise that HIV/AIDS activists cultivated and deployed to reshape clinical trials and the politics of knowledge around the disease in the 1980s and 1990s.

A recent acquisition by the Library Company of Philadelphia offers a glimpse at an even earlier history of what I want to call abolitionist science. In the 1830s, William Lloyd Garrison gifted a copy of Jane Kilby Welsh’s two-volume Lectures on Mineralogy and Geology (Boston, 1832-33) to Philadelphia activist and educator Grace Bustill Douglass and her daughter, Sarah Mapps Douglass. Grace and Sarah Douglass were co-founders of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and Sarah attended the Female Medical College in Philadelphia. She was a reputed science teacher at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth, and she taught generations of black girls and women about anatomy, physiology, and reproduction in her parlor.

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