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Resolution honors Black donor as hidden figure in medical science

Panels at the MCV discovery site of over 53 stolen bodies from African American burial grounds commemorate the history of the victims and current efforts to amend the situation. Photo by Taya Coates of Capital News Service.
Panels at the MCV discovery site of over 53 stolen bodies from African American burial grounds commemorate the history of the victims and current efforts to amend the situation. Photo by Taya Coates of Capital News Service.

The first human-to-human heart transplant in the South occurred without donor consent from the injured Black man or his family, to help a white businessman live. 

Doctors in 1968 determined Bruce Tucker would not survive a severe head injury. 

This story was reported and written by our media partner Capital News Service

The medical team led by Dr. Richard Lower and Dr. David Hume of the Medical College of Virginia did not consult Tucker’s family before the heart transplant, according to Senate Joint Resolution 16.The heart was not the only organ removed without consent. 

The state legislature, 56 years later, was called on to address multiple instances of unethical use of Black bodies by medical institutions in Virginia. 

Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, introduced the resolution to acknowledge such practice with “profound regret.” 

The resolution unanimously passed the Senate and House. Boysko filed the resolution last year, but the Republican-led House Rules Committee never advanced it. 

The resolution “was not given a true hearing in the House of Delegates last year,” Boysko said.

This year looks promising for a different outcome due to a change in leadership, she said.

“The people who are leading today have a different perspective and a commitment to trying to make Virginia an equitable and safe place for everyone,” Boysko said.

Gayle Turner, a family representative of the Tucker family, described her second cousin as a “hidden figure in medical science.”

“He worked at the same place for more than 20 years … and he had filed for civil service in World War II,” Turner said. “He was willing to fight for his country and he loved his country and family.” 

Tucker’s brother, William Tucker, filed a lawsuit against the surgeons in 1968. The case ended in 1972 with a ruling in favor of the doctors, according to court documents

Phillip Thompson, former Loudoun County NAACP president, was “astounded” by Tucker’s story and brought the issue to Boysko last year, he said to Senate committee members. 

The Tucker family expressed appreciation to Boysko and Thompson.

“We are pleased that Virginia is poised to recognize, realize and apologize for past wrongs to assure they never happen again,” the Tucker family stated in an email. “We pray that the full House affirms this resolution.”

“The Organ Thieves: The True Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South” by Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Chip Jones is an in-depth look at the events and larger systemic issues that were at play in Tucker’s case.

“Without ‘The Organ Thieves’ and without asking for the apology, I'm not sure if VCU would have apologized, because the way they apologized was so shallow and hollow,” Turner said.

VCU released a public apology statement in September 2022 and sent a letter to the Tucker family in September 2023. 

The university selected “The Organ Thieves” as its Common Book in 2022. The book was required reading for all first-year students and was discussed at events open to the community.

Jones discovered the story while working at the Richmond Academy of Medicine, the state’s oldest and largest medical society. He was informed of plans for an event in 2018 to honor the 50th anniversary of the state's first human heart transplant.

“As a former reporter, my antenna kind of went up,” Jones said.

The most important aspect of his work was the possibility of closure for Tucker’s family, according to Jones.

“Bruce was a good man, a good person,” Turner said. “He deserved better.” 

The Tucker family hopes the legislation will motivate VCU to lead by example on the nationwide issue of providing justice for the medical misuse of Black bodies.

Construction workers discovered an MCV well that contained the human remains of at least 53 individuals in 1994, according to the resolution. A majority of the discarded remains were African or of African descent.

Shawn Utsey, who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology, is currently serving his third term as chair of the Department of African American Studies at VCU.

“The reason that VCU is able to be a leader is because they had an advantage that began in the 1800s,” Utsey said. “That advantage was access to Black bodies.”

Medical students and staff in Richmond employed grave robbers to perform dissections in the 1800s, according to the measure

At least 53 bodies were “callously and disrespectfully” discarded into the well afterward, according to VCU.

VCU’s Archaeological Research Center sent the remains to the Smithsonian Institution for investigation in 1994. The excavated contents were ultimately placed in storage without funding from VCU.

VCU President Michael Rao establishedthe East Marshall Street Well Planning Project and Committee in 2013. The project unveiled panels to honor the remains at the site of the discovery, as a part of the VCU Office of Health Equity’s History and Health Program in 2021. 

Most recent project efforts include DNA analysis on the remains to locate living relatives, scholarships and memorial installations.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.