By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ meets ‘Get Out’ in this landmark investigation of racial inequality at the core of the heart transplant race.
Although the concept of brain death is now legally recognized nationwide, that wasn’t always the case. Even in the 1960s, it was commonly believed, among doctors and lay people, that a human being was alive until the heartbeat, breathing, or pulse had ceased. In May 1968, Virginia law did not yet recognize the concept of brain death, when Bruce Tucker, a Black factory worker, suffered a skull fracture and was rushed to the Medical College of Virginia (MCV).
In less than 24 hours, surgeons transplanted Tucker’s heart into the chest of a white businessman, prompting America’s first civil lawsuit for wrongful death of its kind as explored in “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South.” The book, which is out now, is an interesting and somber story, written by veteran journalist Chip Jones. The facts laid out of the book and the court case would have lasting implications for the legal definition of death nationwide.
Jones uncovers never-before-heard details about America’s first interracial heart transplant and delivers new investigative reporting about this medical tragedy. At a time when Black jurors were rare and Black judges were unheard of in Virginia, a 37-year-old Black lawyer named L. Douglas Wilder (who would one day be the first Black person in the U.S. to be elected governor) took on Bruce Tucker’s case. Using original archival legal and court documents and armed with the first interview about the case in nearly half a century, with Wilder, Chip Jones provides “a powerful story that examines institutional racism, mortality, medical ethics, and the nature of justice for Black men living in the American South” (Kirkus Reviews).
In 1968, Bruce Tucker, a Black man, went into Virginia’s top research hospital with a head injury, only to have his heart taken out of his body and put into the chest of a white businessman. Now, in “The Organ Thieves,” Pulitzer Prize–nominated journalist Chip Jones exposes the horrifying inequality surrounding Tucker’s death and how he was used as a human guinea pig without his family’s permission or knowledge. The circumstances surrounding his death reflect the long legacy of mistreating African Americans that began more than a century before with cadaver harvesting and worse. It culminated in efforts to win the heart transplant race in the late 1960s.
Excerpt Chapter One: Case of the Missing Heart: In late May 1968, Doug Wilder was in his law office on a tree-lined street in Richmond, Virginia. He was winding down from a long day of work when the phone rang.
“They took my brother’s heart!” the man on the other end of the line exclaimed in horror.
As one of the best-known African-American trial lawyers practicing in the state capital, Wilder was accustomed to taking random phone calls day or night. Accusations of rape, robbery, and murder were not uncommon, nor were other desperate pleas from mothers and fathers seeking help for loved ones who’d run afoul of the legal system. Even as halting steps toward progress had begun to bring incremental improvements in schools, housing, and jobs, his home state of Virginia was still moving at a snail’s pace from under the heavy burden of centuries of discrimination.
But taking a man’s heart from his own body? Wilder had never heard of such a thing. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about, not having a heart,” he told the caller, William Tucker. “What do you mean? What happened to it?”
I am familiar with both the first book mentioned in this review. The first one was incredible in its scope, because Lacks—without her consent and knowledge—was ultimately responsible for Hela cells. Hela cells is an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. The line was derived from biopsied cervical cancer cells taken on February 8, 1951, from Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African-American mother of five, who died of cancer on October 4, 1951, in Baltimore, Maryland, at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The cell line was found to be remarkably durable and prolific, which causes it to be used extensively in scientific study.
But years before this—and the celebrated legal case around the stolen heart—in the 1800’s in Virginia, so-called physicians were exhuming Black bodies to provide cadavers for callous physicians who were teaching anatomy classes and engaging in medical research. And sadly, this was with the help of a Black assistant, who worked at the Medical College of Virginia and participated in “midnight grave robberies.”
“Jones meticulously details how yet another significant achievement in America was disproportionately costly for Black people. ‘The Organ Thieves’ exhumes more than just bodies—it unearths human hopes, scientific ambitions, and devastating mistakes.”—Benjamin Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP and visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
Chip Jones has been reporting for nearly thirty years for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times, Virginia Business, and others. He is the former communications director of the Richmond Academy of Medicine, where he first learned of Bruce Tucker’s story.
To learn more about the book and to order a copy, go to https://www.amazon.com/Organ-Thieves-Shocking-Transplant-Segregated-ebook/dp/B07Z44SJFZ.