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The term was conceived by epidemiologist and public health researcher Sherman James while investigating racial health disparities. One of the people he interviewed was a black man who, despite being born into an impoverished sharecropper family and having only a second grade education, could read and write.
He had freed himself and his offspring from the sharecropper system, had 75 acres (30.4 ha) of farmed land by age 40, but by his 50s had hypertension, arthritis, and severe peptic ulcer disease. His name, John Henry Martin, and his circumstances are evocative of folk hero John Henry, an African American who worked vigorously enough to compete successfully with a steam powered machine, but died as a result of his effort.
Sherman James developed a scale for measuring John Henryism based on rating agreement with a series of statements such as "When things don't go the way I want them to, that just makes me work even harder." Men who score higher on this scale generally have higher blood pressure than men with lower scores. This effect is strongest in those who are poorest.
- Claude M. Steele (2010) Whistling Vivaldi W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 129-133, 148
- James, S. A., Hartnett, S. A., & Kalsbeek, W. D (1983) "John Henryism and blood pressure differences among black men" Journal of Behavioral Medicine 6 (3), 259-278
- James, S. A., Keenan, N. L., Strogatz, D. S., Browning, S. R., & Garret, J. M. (1992) "Socioeconomic status, John Henryism, and blood pressure in black adults: The Pitt county study" American Journal of Epidemiology 135 (1), 59-67
- James, S. A. (1993) "The narrative of John Henry Martin" Southern Cultures 1(1), 83-106
- James, S. A. (1994) "John Henryism and the health of African Americans" Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 18, 163-182
- Blascovich, J., Spencer, S. J., Quinn, D. M., & Steele C. M. (2001) "African Americans and high blood pressure: The role of stereotype threat" Psychological Science 13(3), 225-229
- Duke Medicine News and Communications (2006). 'John Henryism' Key to Understanding Coping, Health.