In “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South,” journalist Chip Jones tells the gruesome story, and connects the transplant to the history of medical mistreatment of Black people in the segregated South.
That history is a long one, stretching from the medical neglect of enslaved people to the Tuskegee Study — in which Black men infected with syphilis were left untreated, without their knowledge or consent, as part of a long-term study — to modern health disparities.
Jones draws a bright line between various abuses at Richmond’s medical school, now known as VCU Medical Center, and the 1968 transplant. During the 19th century, grave robbers sold bodies they had stolen from Black cemeteries to the medical school. In the 1990s, construction work at VCU uncovered a pit with the jumbled remains of at least 53 people thought to have been used for anatomical research there.
The surgeons who took Tucker’s body parts without permission in the ’60s showed the same callousness. “The early conversations among the surgeons had little to do about his chances for survival but rather concerned using him for another purpose,” Jones writes. “No one was discussing whether he might recover and be rehabilitated. No one talked about him going home.”
Readers will learn big-picture facts about the history of heart transplantation and medical racism alongside zoomed-in details like the condition of Klett’s damaged heart, which reminded one surgeon of “an old soccer ball.”
“The Organ Thieves” was written before the disparities of covid-19 and George Floyd’s death. The abuses it records are decades old. But the gruesome disregard for Black lives it documents makes it an urgently modern warning.