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 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.
... wrenchingly bleak truth ... [a] stirring, minute-by-minute saga ... Jones has sifted through these events with great care, looking at all players, every side issue, and later results and fallout ... His well-considered book has the power to open and change minds, and it ought to be widely read.
At the end of The Organ Thieves, Bruce is still a mere sketch rather than a fully-fledged character, a skeleton rather than a fleshed-out man. Bruce’s son Abraham, who was 14 when his father died, declined to speak to Jones when he came calling. Jones rightly feels it was shocking that parts of Bruce’s body were taken without family consent; should he not have ensured he had their blessing before borrowing his story? And without that human element, the book also lacks a heart ... In its place, there is too much padding. After initially setting out Bruce’s story, Jones takes the reader through a history of medical malpractice, from grave robbers (euphemistically called 'resurrectionists') to transplant experimentation. This means the book starts slowly, leaving it about 100 pages too long and in need of a much tighter editor. Jones also goes off on some odd tangents, writing about the Apollo missions and the opposition to the draft of Dr Benjamin Spock, America’s favourite paediatrician. It’s a pity because there is a powerful, if painful, story here. Jones just hasn’t quite managed to uncover it.
In the hands of some writers, this would have become a powerful narrative, weaving one family’s tragedy into a nuanced panorama of race, medical innovation and ethics, scientific ambition and the law. But Chip Jones’s The Organ Thieves, which tells the story of what happened to Bruce Tucker, disappoints, with its pedestrian language, telling omissions and hagiographic portrayals of medical actors ... Jones doesn’t stop to interject at key moments in the narrative ... Such coercion is and was unethical, and should not just be treated as another story detail ... Moreover, it should have been made abundantly clear that no amount of money could have bought an African-American a bed in a standard ward ... What happened to Tucker matters for reasons far beyond the appropriation of one man’s organs ... The author describes some of this key history of body appropriation, but fails to engage with the ethics of these practices, explaining away the moral lapses of researchers as a result of systemic racism and professional ambition ... the book fails to engage with such questions, and Jones avoids grappling with them by claiming there were no ethical strictures governing medical practice and research at the time ... He is not the first writer to voice this fiction, sometimes deployed by apologists to normalize the abysmal treatment of African-Americans ... Instead of engaging with questions of transplantation ethics based on documented history, the author focuses on fictional accounts, extensively invoking the fantastic Gothic writing of Edgar Allan Poe and African-American myths about 'night doctors' who steal bodies. Unfortunately, he doesn’t illuminate how the myth relates to the documented bodysnatching from Black cemeteries by doctors, an elision which consigns warranted African-American fears to the realm of horror stories and folklore ... This ahistoric approach is most dismaying, especially in light of telling errors that stud the narrative ... tells an important story passably well, but its evasions and occasional missteps hobble its power to illuminate.