The US has a terrible past (and present) in regards to racism. Scratch the surface of just about any topic and you’ll reveal its racist roots- it’s an unfortunately truth, because things didn’t have to be things way, but we let it, and the only way to change things going forward is to confront what we’ve been and resolve not to be that again. The history of medical research leading up to the miracle of modern organ transplantation is no different, and after discovering The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones (Gallery/Jeter Publishing, 2020) in a Book Riot email, I knew I had to read it. Onto my TBR it went.
In 1968, William Tucker, a Black man from Virginia got a received a strange phone call about his brother Bruce- something about his being in the hospital, and a bizarre comment about them taking his heart. After scrambling for information that no one seemed to want to provide, William learned that Bruce had died following a head injury. The hospital had never contacted anyone from the family, despite William’s business card with his phone number being in Bruce’s wallet upon his arrival at the hospital, and stranger still, they had removed his heart and kidneys without permission in order to use them for transplants, a new and still very much experimental procedure at this time. William was horrified at this desecration of his brother’s body and contacted a lawyer.
But medical experiments (often ones that lead to groundbreaking research and treatments) have a deeply racist history in the US; the progress medical science has made has often been built on brown and Black backs and bodies, quite often without their consent. Chip Jones delves into the history of Black grave robbing by medical schools for research purposes and how that led to William Tucker’s missing organs. His case went to court, and the outcome ultimately led to a change in legislation when it comes to organ donation and consent, but the history is there and cannot be erased, nor should it be hidden. The Organ Thieves shines a light on a subject a lot of people most likely know very little about.
Organ transplants have featured heavily in the books I’ve read throughout my life. In the 80s and 90s when I was growing up, I read Why Me? by Deborah Kent (about an adopted teenager who receives a donated kidney from her biological mother) over and over again, and plowed through a ton of Lurlene McDaniel’s medical dramas for young adults, which often featured teenagers who were awaiting donated organs. And of course there was Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, and recently, Rachel Solomon’s Our Year of Maybe. But I never really knew the history of transplantation, the many failures and deaths it took to get to the place where receiving a donated organ meant a new lease on life, the difficulties doctors first had in recognizing the symptoms of rejection, and what this all meant for Black patients. They were aware of the grave robbing and knew this would have bigger implications, and unfortunately, this proved to be true. And all of this and more (such as history of the Tuskegee study) has led to the hesitancy of Black people in taking the Covid-19 vaccine. History never dies; its consequences ring throughout time like the loudest of bells.
There’s even more racist medical history that Mr. Jones doesn’t touch (the history of gynecology is utterly horrifying), but what he does cover is bad enough. The trial that covered the removal of Bruce Tucker’s organs without family consent is a complex read; the trial itself raised many questions and led to necessary changes in legislation, but at a heavy emotional cost for the Tucker family and the many others who came before them. So much of our progress as a society- maybe all of it- has been made at the expense of others.
At times, the story gets just the tiniest bit dry, but The Organ Thieves is so important that pushing on through is necessary and rewarding- you’ll be better informed, a better ally, better at knowing what shouldn’t be. If you’ve ever read or watched a medical thriller or drama and enjoyed it, or benefited from organ transplants or medical research that came from corpses dug up in the dead of night (and this is probably everyone), this is a book you should be aware of. We owe those unnamed people and Bruce Tucker that much.