Chip Jones' book, "The Organ Thieves," has been selected as VCU's 2022 Common Book. (Photos courtesy of Chip Jones and Simon and Schuster)

‘The Organ Thieves’ selected as VCU’s 2022 Common Book

The award-winning book by Pulitzer-nominated journalist Chip Jones examines a long legacy of mistreating African Americans, culminating in efforts to win the heart transplant race in the late 1960s.

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 “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South,” a 2020 book that 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), has been selected as the 2022 Virginia Commonwealth University Common Book.

The award-winning book, written by Pulitzer-nominated journalist Chip Jones, tells the story of Bruce Tucker, a Black man who went to the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond in 1968 with a head injury only to later have his heart taken out and transplanted to the chest of a white businessman.

It will be read by first-year students at VCU and will also be discussed through a series of events by the greater VCU and VCU Health community.  

From the book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster:

“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.

VCU’s Common Book Program is a universitywide initiative that seeks to introduce first-year students to complex social issues through a common text. Hosted by University College and the Office of the Provost, the Common Book Program helps frame complex social issues in an interdisciplinary lens through which the book can be analyzed and discussed in an academic setting.

First Common Book set in Richmond

The 2022 Common Book marks the 16th year a text has been selected for first-year students (the program was previously called the Summer Reading Program). “The Organ Thieves” is the first Common Book set in Richmond.

The book won the Library of Virginia’s 2021 Literary Award for Nonfiction.

“We cannot write our next chapter without understanding how the university’s complex history affects our patients,” said Art Kellermann, M.D., senior vice president for health sciences at VCU and CEO of VCU Health System. “VCU and its health system have come a long way, but we will not rest until we achieve health equity for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, income or geography.”

VCU created a new Office of Health Equity and launched a History and Health educational series in 2021. Open to all VCU and VCU Health students, faculty and staff, as well as the community, the series addresses racial equity. In line with the 2022 Common Book theme, the upcoming March History and Health event will focus on medical research and the first heart transplant. 

“The Common Book is structured to help students learn how to consider complex issues from multiple perspectives and engage in civil academic discussions about those issues,” said Constance Relihan, Ph.D., an English professor and dean of University College. “‘The Organ Thieves provides students with a tremendous opportunity to discuss a difficult aspect of our history in order to better understand our current moment and work toward a just future.”

‘An insightful read’

Felecia Williams, Ph.D., associate dean in University College and director of the Common Book Program, said she believes “The Organ Thieves” will be an insightful read that will engage students and faculty across a variety of disciplines.

“This text will allow our first-year students and others across campus to engage with content that is applicable to all disciplines and fields,” said Williams, an assistant professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry. “We will also offer programming that may spark conversation beyond the classroom.”

“The Organ Thieves” will be used in the curriculum for UNIV 111 and UNIV 112. Both courses are taught by the University College’s Department of Focused Inquiry and are required for first-year students. 

“The Organ Thieves” was selected by the Common Book selection committee, which is made up of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members from more than 20 departments and units and university leadership. 

“As a student, I think it’s important that ‘The Organ Thieves’ was chosen for the Common Book because it elucidates racial injustice in medical practices, back in 1968, and now,” said Carley Harrison, a junior psychology major who served on the Common Book selection committee. “The book details Bruce Tucker’s experience within a Richmond hospital, and as VCU students, we need to acknowledge our community’s history. Racial inequality in medical practices is still affecting millions of people. If students can inherit the lessons bestowed in the book, we’ll have more information to make a change in our community, and for our future.”

Jones will deliver a keynote address Oct. 12 at the Stuart C. Siegel Center, 1200 W. Broad St. The event is free and open to the public. He is the author of three other books: “Boys of ’67: From Vietnam to Iraq, the Extraordinary Story of a Few Good Men,” “War Shots: Norm Hatch and the U.S. Marine Corps Combat Cameramen of World War II” and “Red, White or Yellow? The Media & the Military at War in Iraq.”

He worked for nearly 30 years as a reporter in Virginia with stints at The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times, Virginia Business magazine and other publications. Jones earned his Pulitzer nomination while covering a coal strike for The Roanoke Times. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Kansas and a master’s in English from Hollins University.

Leading up to the keynote address, the Common Book Program will host a series of on-campus events with VCU faculty and other community partners around “The Organ Thieves.” For more information on those events and the Common Book Program, visit commonbook.vcu.edu or follow on social media @VCUCommonBook.