University of Rochester

Alumni Gazette

‘A Cautionary Tale’

Harriet Washington ’76 has long been haunted by the sordid, and often gruesome, exploitation of black people by some medical researchers.

As a Rochester undergraduate, when she was supposed to be studying Chaucer in Rush Rhees or preparing for a test in genetics, she immersed herself in titles like Burma Doctor and My Patients Were Zulus, books which detailed the adventures of 19th-century medical researchers trying out new techniques on unsuspecting “natives.”

“I fell in love with these medical adventurers as they went off to these exotic lands,” says Washington, who lives in Manhattan with her husband, Ron DeBose. “Their memoirs portrayed the march of medicine, but I was so troubled by the descriptions of the natives as being very happy and grateful for the blessings of Western medicine; meanwhile, many were being horribly abused.”

That troubling side of medicine is chronicled in Washington’s new book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation with African Americans from the Colonial Era to the Present. The book, to be published in December by Random House, is the first comprehensive study of the medical profession’s treatment of African Americans in research.

A social history of medical research, the book analyzes the ethics of issues such as research abuses of black children, deadly radiation experiments, experiments in eugenics and reproduction, biological terrorism directed against blacks, experimental surgical technology, and many related issues.

Washington, a visiting scholar at Tuskegee University’s National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care, has often presented her research
at conferences on the history and ethics of medicine in the United States and Europe, most recently in Geneva, Switzerland.

It’s a troubling history. Washington tells, for example, of how physician James Marion Sims experimented on slave women, performing experimental vaginal surgery on them without the benefit of anesthesia.

She recounts the infamous syphilis study, conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service in Tuskegee, Alabama. From 1932 to 1972, researchers studied infected black men, detailing their deterioration instead of treating them.

As late as the 1960s, Washington found evidence that one physician quipped that he used blacks instead of cats for medical research because they were “everywhere, and cheap experimental animals.”

“Harriet never dropped her desire to be involved in medicine,” says Robyne Curry ’77, one of Washington’s dorm-mates in Helen Wood Hall and an editor at MRM Worldwide, an international advertising agency. “She always had a craving for knowledge, and with this book, she brings to light an important part of our history.”

Publication of Medical Apartheid is the latest step for Washington in a 30-year career that has focused on health care, medical ethics, and journalism. It’s her third book, following Health and Healing for African Americans in 1997 and Living Healthy with Hepatitis C: Natural and Conventional Approaches to Recover Your Quality of Life in 2000.

A former editor at USA Today, Washington received a two-year fellowship in the early 1990s from the Harvard School of Public Health, where she studied epidemiology and national health care policy. After freelancing for a while, she landed a journalism fellowship at Stanford University, and the idea for her book on medical research and African Americans took shape. A fellowship in medical ethics at Harvard Medical School helped hone her research skills.

“This gave me the tools to do an ethical analysis,” says Washington. “How should we judge our forebears? When you are analyzing something terrible done to research subjects in 1920, how do you judge those actions? In the light of today’s heightened understanding of moral behavior, or by the standards of the past?”

She mined medical research journals, read documents from America’s slave era, and delved into the journals and speeches of the medical research titans of the 19th and 20th centuries.

“I liken it to the legal discovery process, because I was searching for medical and historical evidence in mounds of tangentially related documents,” Washington says. “The abuses were egregious, and I want my book to serve as a cautionary tale, so people can recognize the problems and they won’t happen again.”

—David McKay Wilson

Wilson is a New York–based freelance writer.