‘Organ Thieves’ author calls on MCV to apologize for 1968 heart transplant controversy
Anya Sczerzenie, Staff Writer
In 1968, a Black factory worker named Bruce Tucker suffered a head injury while out with friends.
He was taken to the hospital at the Medical College of Virginia, or MCV, where he died. Without the consent of his family, doctors took Tucker’s heart for donation to a white patient — the first heart transplant in Virginia, and the 16th in the world, according to VCU Health.
Now, author Chip Jones is calling on VCU Health to issue a public apology for its treatment of Tucker.
“I don’t know what will be done,” Jones said. “But at this point all I can do is be an advocate for something to be done.”
Jones’ book, “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South,” was published in August. It is the culmination of three years of research and work that began in 2017.
The book details the story of Tucker’s injury, his death and his family’s struggle with medical and legal systems after he died.
“That’s really the gist of my book,” Jones said. “How do these things happen, and why do they matter today?”
Jones was a communications director at the Richmond Academy of Medicine when he found out about the story of Bruce Tucker’s heart in the records of the Tompkins-McCaw library at VCU.
A law dating back to 1884 called the “Anatomical Act” established a 24-hour waiting period in which a family member could claim a body before organs could be taken to use in research applications, Jones said.
However, the doctors took Tucker’s heart before the 24-hour period had passed, Jones said.
“The sense of the weight of history was definitely upon me,” Author Chip Jones said. “It wasn’t just a book about the first heart transplant, it was what happened to this Black man whose heart was taken from him.”
Doctors made a cursory search for family members but did not notice a business card in Tucker’s pocket, which was for his brother’s nearby shoe repair business. William Tucker, Bruce’s sibling, had been frantically calling the hospital and searching for his brother the whole time, according to Jones.
“There was a system in place to prevent it,” Jones said, “but for a Black factory worker with no social influence and no privilege, the law was violated.”
Bruce Tucker’s name was first revealed in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article headlined “Heart Donor Identified,” written by Beverly Orndorff in 1968. This article was published only a few days after the front-page news of the transplant with the headline “Heart Transplant Operation Performed Here by MCV,” which did not mention Bruce Tucker’s name.
VCU spokesperson Laura Rossacher said in an email that the university reached out to the Tucker family with a formal apology after Jones’ book was published.
“Institutionally, we very much wanted to honor Mr. Tucker and were hoping to do so by working closely with his family,” Rossacher said.
The university wanted to talk to the family about how to “most meaningfully recognize his memory,” Rossacher said. The only family member the university was able to locate was Bruce Tucker’s son, who hasn’t responded to the university’s requests for communication, she said.
VCU professor Shawn Utsey, director of the Department of African American Studies, focuses his research on something similar — medical abuse of Black bodies that precede the Tucker case.
Utsey made a documentary titled “Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies” in 2011 about the history of grave robbing for medical dissection in Richmond.
More than a hundred years before Bruce Tucker’s heart was taken, “grave robbers” would dig up bodies from enslaved people’s graveyards and bring them to the medical college, Utsey said. There, white students used them for research and dissection.
Utsey is quoted in Jones’ book, but he said he did not know the story of Bruce Tucker before Jones told him about it.
“I was horrified, but I wasn’t surprised,” Utsey said.
Utsey said that while a public apology is a good start, the university needs to go further by compensating the family or naming a university building after Bruce Tucker.
Utsey said VCU should acknowledge that much of their past research came from stolen bodies and organs.
Jones said he felt he had a moral obligation to write his book. While it was initially intended to be about the first heart transplant in the southern United States, it became a book about the story of Bruce Tucker.
“The sense of the weight of history was definitely upon me,” Jones said. “It wasn’t just a book about the first heart transplant, it was what happened to this Black man whose heart was taken from him.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Laura Rossacher saying VCU “wanted to help Tucker.” The University stated they “wanted to honor Mr. Tucker.”