New Common Book highlights untold story of first heart transplant in Virginia

Chip Jones's book, 'The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South,' was selected for the VCU 2022-23 common book program. Photo courtesy of Chip Jones

Varsha Vasudevan, Staff Writer

The university selected “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South,” as the VCU 2022-23 Common Book, according to the VCU Common Book website

The selection occurred a year after author Chip Jones called on the Medical College of Virginia, or MCV, to make an apology, according to a previous report by The Commonwealth Times.    

Director of the Common Book Program Felecia Williams stated in an email interview the Common Book Program aims to provide “insightful text” to apply in and out of classrooms. 

“We believe ‘The Organ Thieves’ will allow our first-year students and others across campus to engage with content that is meaningful and applicable to all disciplines and fields,” Williams stated.

The chosen Common Book for the year is intended to inspire students to consider social issues through an “interdisciplinary lens,” according to the website

Williams stated the Common Book is selected by the Common Book Selection Committee, which is made up of staff and students from the university. The committee recommends three texts to the dean, who consults with the provost to make the final decision, according to Williams. 

Williams stated the program seeks to select texts that focus on a variety of issues and themes like climate change, poverty and eviction, voter suppression, immigration and incarceration.

‘The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South,’ has been selected as the VCU 2022-23 common book. Photo courtesy of Chip Jones

The book tells the story of Bruce Tucker, a Black factory worker who was admitted to MCV in 1968 for a head injury. There, he was pronounced brain dead and his heart was then surgically removed and transplanted to a white man without the consent of Tucker’s family. This is the story of the first heart transplant operation in Virginia, according to a previous report by The Commonwealth Times

Jones said he was honored the book was selected by VCU, despite the book’s criticism of the university’s past medical practices. 

“I think it shows a real intellectual honesty by the leadership now,” Jones said. “I’m heartened, no pun intended, that the leadership now, especially on the academic campus, sees the relevance of addressing a lot of past injustices.”

Despite pushing for a public apology from MCV for Bruce Tucker’s treatment, Jones said he doesn’t think it is likely to happen. 

Jones said he initially was going to write a book about the race to successfully complete the first heart transplant surgery, but changed course when he learned about Bruce Tucker. 

He said he learned the story from an interview with former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder in 2017. He said he will never forget how Wilder described Tucker’s brother, William Tucker, when they did not receive any compensation for the “heart being taken.”

“He [Wilder] said it was like his [William Tucker’s] entire life, like 50 years old or so, his entire life of being discriminated against, you could see it on his face,” Jones said. “I’m like, ‘this is a different book than I started out writing.’” 

Chair of African American studies at VCU Shawn Utsey said the book’s selection as the Common Book is an “honorable” effort by VCU to “come clean and confront their past.”  

“This is surely a step forward,” Utsey said. “Whereby they are acknowledging what happened, and making it [the book] accessible to students who could also appreciate the contributions, although involuntary, of the Black community.” 

Utsey said that by embracing and learning from stories like Bruce Tucker’s, the university is providing a good example of how to handle historical trauma to incoming students and discuss the historical exploitation of Black people in medical history. 

“It provides a lesson as to how race has always been used politically,” Utsey said. “It also offers a cautionary tale of how we should not be manipulated by politics, in terms of race, gender [and] sexual orientation.” 

In addition to the Common Book Program, the VCU Office of Health Equity’s history and health initiative aims to draw attention to historic discrimination in medical treatment in order to “contribute to a health process that will bring meaningful change,” according to the VCU 2020-21 annual report

Utsey said that VCU should continue sharing stories like Bruce Tucker’s to credit Black people’s contributions to MCV.

“It would be unusual that VCU or MCV didn’t own slaves,” Utsey said. “I’d like to see them [VCU] uncover that story, so we can know the true extent of the degree to which Black people built the medical college.”

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