The Organ Thieves by Chip Jones

The Blurb On The Back:

Virginia, 1968.  In the segregated American South, surgeons raced to do what many still thought was impossible: transplant a human heart.  After Bruce Tucker, a black man, was admitted to the state’s top hospital with a head injury, he never left the hospital alive: but his heart did, in the chest of a white man.

The decades of scandal and investigation which followed uncovered a long, gruesome history of human experimentation and racial inequality, of body-snatching and cover-ups stretching back to the nineteenth century and still resonating today.  The story is told here for the first tie in full by Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter Chip Jones.

You can order The Organ Thieves by Chip Jones from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Charles “Chip” Jones is a former communications director of the Richmond Academy of Medicine and earned a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize during his 30 year reporting career.  This is the horrifying account and fascinating account of the murky circumstances in which a black man’s heart was put into a white man’s body in 1968 Richmond, Virginia, which Jones ties back to the state’s historic segregation and poor treatment of its black community.

What works particularly well in this book is how Jones ties the central elements of Bruce Tucker’s death and how his heart came to be donated to white businessman Joseph Klett with the dark history of Richmond’s history and the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s with the efforts of medical doctors to progress their field – initially through studying anatomy and later with transplant surgery.  By contextualising the events in this way, you can easily understand why Bruce’s brother, William, and his lawyer L. Douglas Wilder (who went onto become the first black Governor of a US state) are so suspicious of the hospital while also understanding what Dr Richard Lower and Dr David Hume (who headed the transplant team at the Medical College of Virginia) were trying to do in terms of advancing human medicine.

Certainly Virginia’s racial history runs right through the book with Jones beginning with Augustus L Warner, who moved to Richmond in 1837 and was determined to establish a medical school capable of competing with the best in the world.  From here Jones talks about how the need to teach medicine meant a need for bodies and it was fascinating to read about the resurrectionists (night doctors) who would go out grave robbing to keep the anatomists tables full.  I knew a bit about grave robbing in the United Kingdom but Jones makes interesting points about how climate was important for medical schools because they could only do anatomy dissections during colder months but the chilling thing about Richmond is how Warner boasted about the availability of black bodies for dissection, which were easier to obtain – in part because of the slave trade.  Jones brings to life some of the key players in this situation from Warner to Chris Barker, a black man who worked for the medical school and led the grave robbers, earning the enmity of black people in the city.

The action then jumps onto the 1950s and research into heart transplant surgery by Richard Lower and David Hume (who has had success in kidney transplants and wants to put MCV on the map by pioneering heart transplants).  Jones gives you a good sense of the personalities of both men and again contextualises their efforts in the context of the difficulties of carrying out such operations and the experiments done to try and overcome them (some of which are truly gruesome).  Again, the racial politics of the day form a backdrop to this with Jones contextualising the hospital’s activities with its segregated wards (which were in terrible condition) and the treatment of black students (including a valedictorian who couldn’t attend some of the social events set up for the graduating year).

For me the court case brought by William Tucker was probably the least successful part of the book.  This is not entirely Jones’s fault – there was no official transcript of the trial so he’s dependent on what was in the public domain and the notes made by Judge Compton – while Bruce Tucker’s son refused to participate in the book, which could have provided additional context to William’s feelings.  What does come through is that MCV was grossly negligent in trying to locate Bruce’s relatives before harvesting his organs and were incredibly insensitive and high-handed in dealing with the family – never even offering an apology or explanation.  Jones does a sturdy job of setting out the legal issues of the case and why William Tucker’s efforts failed, but it would have been interesting to understand more about Judge Compton’s reasons for changing his mind on a key legal issue regarding when death occurred.

I could have also done without the postscript, which sees Jones’s attempts to track down Bruce’s son, Abraham.  While I understand why Jones wanted to do it (and I think the book would have benefitted from his participation), given his clear reluctance to engage with Jones via mail and through relatives, I could well understand his suspicion when Jones showed up at his house and it just felt intrusive.

That said, I did find this a fascinating read that completely held my attention from beginning to end.  I certainly came away with more of a sense of the experience of black Americans in Virginia and why so many in the community are mistrustful of authority establishments like hospitals.  I equally got an understanding of the problems of transplant surgery and the risks and ethically questionable decisions that were taken to advance medical knowledge.  It’s a book that genuinely tries to show all the issues and be fair to the parties involved but at the same time not pull its punches. 

THE ORGAN THIEVES was released in the United Kingdom on 15th August 2020.  Thanks to Quercus Books for the review copy of this book.

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