Stolen corpses: inside MCV’s history with racist medicine

Richard Lower’s labaratory at MCV. The surgeon was the rst to perform a heart transplant in 1968. Photo courtesy of Kevin Morley, University Relations.

Chris Wood, Contributing Writer

Almost 25 years ago, construction workers discovered human remains in a pit at the Kontos Medical Sciences Building at MCV. Those remains turned out to belong to black people whose bodies and corpses were used without consent for experiments and research during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The bodies are suspected to have been brought to the medical school that later became the Medical College of Virginia, taken by grave robbers known to target black cemeteries.

The remains were discarded — along with clothes and medical tools — inside a well until their discovery in 1994. In 2012, the Department of Anthropology in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History conducted an anthropological examination that confirmed the remains of at least 53 bodies — 44 were estimated to be 15 years old at the time of death. The other nine were age 14 or younger.

The mistreatment of black corpses by medical professionals in the past has been known to lead to distrust of medical research in the African-American community. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported research at the Tuskegee Institute from 1932 to 1972 involved withholding treatment from African-Americans with syphilis who were never informed they were infected.

A Louisiana State University review concluded that the Tuskegee Study was “ethically unjustified,” because the study was conducted without the patients’ informed consent. And even though penicillin became the drug of choice for syphilis in 1947, the researchers never gave participants the choice to quit study to begin the widely-used treatment of penicillin at the time.

The East Marshall Street Well Project formed its committee in 2013 to research and develop ways to reconcile the site’s history and memorialize the remains appropriately. The committee released its final recommendations in December 2018.

The recommendations have been accepted; the project is now in the process of forming three steering committees comprised of VCU faculty and Richmond residents. Each committee will focus on one of three areas: research, memorial and interment.

Kevin Allison with VCU’s Office of the President said that in February, the steering committees will review committee members nominations, choose members, and then begin working through their recommendations.

The EMSW Project recommended the following:

  • A study be conducted on the history of the well site in Richmond to show the experiences African-Americans have had in the medical field.
  • A research advisory board be created to help carry out the Eastern Marshall Well Street project development and future proposals.
  • Four memorial sites be established within or near the Konto’s Building, along with a memorial and interactive learning component at the burial site itself.
  • An annual memorialization practice should be held by VCU medical students.
  • The remains be interred either at the African Burial Ground site near I-95 or at Evergreen Cemetery.

A black heart forgotten

In 1968, Bruce Tucker, an African-American patient, was brought to the hospital after a brain injury from a fall.

According to the book “Transplantation Ethics” by Robert Veatch and Lainia Roos, Tucker was unconscious and, 24 hours later, cut off from his respirator and pronounced dead. Doctors made no attempt to contact family to decide if he should be kept alive or if his organs could be donated.

Tucker’s heart was then used in the first successful heart transplant at MCV performed by Dr. Richard Lower, even though he was not listed as an organ donor. VCU celebrated the transplant’s 50th year anniversary last year on Feb. 1 with an event series. The university’s VCU News coverage of the event didn’t mention Tucker.

In “Flesh and Blood: Organ Transplantation and Blood Transfusion in Twentieth-Century America,” Susan E. Lederer writes that MCV chair of surgery at the time, Dr. David Hume, suggested that doctors should be immunized for racial scrutiny because they provide “free” care in a state institution. Hume told a reporter, “[Doctors] should be the last ones picked on over racial matters.”

Bruce Tucker’s brother, William Tucker, later sued the hospital for $100,000 for wrongful death, saying that the transplant team was engaged in a “systematic and nefarious scheme to use Bruce Tucker’s heart and hastened his beath by shutting off the mechanical means of support.” Tucker’s attorney was then-state senator L. Douglas Wilder, who later became the first black governor of Virginia.

While the verdict exonerated the doctors from wrongful death, it helped establish the official legal definition of brain death, according to the MCV Foundation.

University spokesperson Michael Porter called the transplant “a part of VCU’s history.”

“The past treatment of certain patients based on race is an unfortunate element of our legacy,” Porter said.

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