A man standing behind a podium with the VCU logo on it
Chip Jones, author of "The Organ Thieves," told the story of Bruce Tucker and the history of the unauthorized use of the bodies of the deceased in health care at this year's Common Book lecture. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

‘The Organ Thieves’ author Chip Jones delivers 2022-23 Common Book lecture at VCU

Jones discusses Bruce Tucker’s experience at MCV in 1968 within the context of the long mistreatment of Black people in health care.

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In writing “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South,” author and journalist Chip Jones had one goal: To tell the story of how Bruce Tucker was “ensnared in a deadly web of medical research at the old Medical College in Virginia, only to be discarded into the dustbin of history.”

Jones discussed his 2020 book, which is the 2022-23 VCU Common Book, on Wednesday at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts at VCU before a crowd of hundreds. The book brings to light the story of Tucker, a Black man who in 1968 went to the Medical College of Virginia — now part of VCU — with a head injury only to later have his heart taken out and transplanted into the chest of a white businessman.

“When I first started hearing about this heart transplant thing that happened in 1968, I was thinking of a book kind of along the lines of Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Right Stuff,’ which was about the race with the Soviet Union to the moon, only it would be a race to the first heart transplant and the role that Richmond and MCV played in it,” Jones said. “But as I learned more about the sick origin story of the college, the medical college, I knew I had to go deeper. I knew I had to go deeper to give an honest accounting of what led up to the events of 1968. So that’s why, as I’ve often said, the story seemed to shift from my head down to my heart.”

As the donor for what was then the Medical College of Virginia’s first heart transplant and among the first in the country, Tucker contributed to an important medical advancement, but the procedure was done without his or his family’s knowledge or consent.

In the book and in his remarks, Jones placed Tucker’s experience within the context of the long mistreatment of Black people in health care generally and specifically at medical schools such as MCV, that employed the practice of grave robbing for purposes of medical dissection.

“MCV’s origin story, its creation story, is inextricably bound to a shameful practice that as the medical school grew, only by resorting to the theft and unauthorized use of the bodies of the deceased, often formerly enslaved people, as well as some free Blacks, many of whom worked themselves to death on plantations around the capital, but also in the city’s industrial sector,” Jones said. “The concept of obtaining permission for donating a body for medical research, much less organs to help others, was as foreign a concept as it would have been for free enslaved people to live side by side with whites in the South.”

Examining ‘deplorable past practices’

In September, the VCU Board of Visitors and the VCU Health System Board of Directors approved a resolution that acknowledges and apologizes for the treatment of Tucker, as well as the people whose remains were discovered in the East Marshall Street Well.

“Being devoted to inclusion means honestly facing past actions with humility and transparency,” VCU and VCU Health President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said when the resolution was approved. “So today, we sincerely apologize to Mr. Bruce Tucker, his family and all of those hurt by deplorable past practices.”

As VCU’s Common Book, “The Organ Thieves” was read this summer and fall by VCU students, particularly first-year students. The Common Book Program is one of the largest initiatives in University College and is focused on welcoming first-year students into the vibrant intellectual culture of VCU and providing them with the opportunity to explore complex social issues through an interdisciplinary lens.

“Every year the VCU Common Book Program selects a single book that addresses a difficult, complex social issue that has current impact for all of us and that can only be addressed through interdisciplinary thinking, honest critique and intellectual thought, and engaged civil discourse,” said Constance Relihan, Ph.D., dean of University College. “The goal of this program is not to teach students what to think, but rather to help them learn how to think.”

Fotis Sotiropoulos, Ph.D., provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said “The Organ Thieves” is a “painful, poignant read,” but that the “energy, engagement and excitement” at VCU about it demonstrates the power of the Common Book Program.

“It is a tragic story, but it is vital that this story is being told,” he said. “To quote VCU President Michael Rao: ‘History can teach us powerful lessons when we are willing to listen. Our hope is to create a body of knowledge that generations to come can learn from and use to inform meaningful change.’”

This fall, “The Organ Thieves” has been discussed at a series of events by the greater VCU and VCU Health community.

Among the events was the 2022 Wilder Symposium, “Racism, Health and Accountability,” hosted by the L. Doulas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and University College. Wilder, the 66th governor of Virginia and a distinguished professor at the Wilder School, recounted at the event how he represented the Tucker family in a lawsuit against MCV and described how Tucker’s case was just one example of a history of racism in health care.

Two people sitting on chairs on a stage with a person to the right of them signing in sign language.
Chip Jones speaks with Stephanie Miller Rizzi, assistant professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry in VCU's University College, at Wednesday's event. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

The VCU Office of Health Equity has been hosting an ongoing series focused on racial equity, exploring VCU’s challenging racial history, including the circumstances depicted in “The Organ Thieves.”

VCU Health has created additional resources for students who are looking for additional information on the subject of health equity. The resources, including an epilogue video to the Common Book and a health equity video series are available on the Common Book’s resource pages.

Jones has been a journalist for three decades, reporting for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times, Virginia Business magazine and others. As a reporter for The Roanoke Times, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the Pittston coal strike. He is the former communications director of the Richmond Academy of Medicine, which is where he first learned about the story that would become “The Organ Thieves.”

A son’s story

In his closing remarks Wednesday, Jones recounted how he had sought to interview Abraham Tucker, Bruce Tucker’s son who was left fatherless as a teenager, while writing the book, but he declined. Earlier this year, however, a relative sent Jones an email saying Abraham Tucker was ready to talk.

“I had no idea what to expect. Would he let me have it for my book and research or writing about him, and our brief discussion on his front porch?” Jones said. “Did he want me to tell what I might have gotten wrong? Did he want to vent. And, if so, who could blame him? All I could do was call back.”

In their conversation, Jones asked a question many readers had asked him: Did Abraham Tucker want an apology from VCU?

“’No,’ he replied. He really didn’t expect an apology or anything really. Would he want to be part of the upcoming Common Book program, which I’d just heard about? I asked him. ‘No,’ he said again,” Jones said. “Then he told me why. ‘I learned to just forget it. I learned to just forget it,’ he said. He said he’d managed over time to ‘Let it go.’ So he said, ‘I shouldn’t be in the conversation.’”

Jones said Tucker shared something else that has stuck with him.

“As he described what he’s seen of the world, Abraham Tucker said ‘I’m not impressed. I am not impressed by what I’ve seen,’” Jones said. “Who could blame him?”