Impure Science

Harriet WashingtonLike all kids, Harriet Washington begged her dad for a special toy. Unlike most, her coveted gadget was a microscope. Science was such a passion for her that she helped her grandmother make and sell potholders in order to earn the money for one. But as she got older she found that, as an African American woman, she was actively discouraged from science, even as a college student in the late 1960s. So she became a journalist instead, unaware that it would lead her back to science in the end.

Washington is the author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. She came to Central’s campus as part of the Intersections community teach-in, a two-day event dedicated to this year’s common reading, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Like that book, Washington’s work is at the intersection of medicine, ethics and culture. Peggy Fitch, director of the Intersections program—a required first-year seminar designed to introduce students to the liberal arts—said that Washington exemplifies the idea of lifelong learning. “Her integration of science and writing is the perfect example of the liberal arts,” said Fitch.

A career spark

Washington’s eclectic career history illustrates her liberal arts approach. At various times in her life, Washington has worked as a journalist, social worker, lab technician, announcer for a classical radio station and manager of a poison control center and suicide hotline.

It was in this last position that Washington first became interested in the history of African Americans and medicine. While cleaning out some old files in the building, Washington found files from kidney transplant patients, and she noticed a disturbing trend: White patients had thick files, and African American patients had thin ones. Most of the African Americans were not being referred for transplants.

In her keynote address during the teach-in at Central, Washington outlined the history of medical abuses against African Americans. She explained that the topic is often ignored in history textbooks, which made her all the more determined to learn more about it. After her discovery of the files, Washington decided to educate herself in medicine and ethics. She became a Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School. Even there, however, issues involving minorities were often ignored.

Not ancient history

Harriet Washington

The most widely-known medical abuse against African Americans is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. From 1932 to 1972, the Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute studied a group of African American men with syphilis, but the patients were not told they had the disease or given penicillin, the standard cure after 1947. Dozens of the men died, and wives and children became infected with the disease.

During her lecture, Washington pointed out that these kinds of abuses are not ancient history. In the 1990s, for example, a group of African American and Hispanic children in Los Angeles were given an experimental measles vaccine. The parents weren’t told it was experimental, and the vaccine had already killed hundreds of children in Brazil and Africa.

Despite these abuses, Washington emphasized that the researchers who perpetrated these ethical violations were not monsters. “What they were doing was consonant with the norms of the culture,” she said.

Language and power

Even outside problematic studies, researchers can stigmatize a group through the way they frame an issue. For example, researchers could ask the question: Why are African Americans paranoid about doctors? Or they could ask: Why are African Americans afraid of doctors? “Paranoid” implies pathology, but fear can be justified. ”Researchers answer medical questions,” Washington said. “But they also ask them. And that gives them a lot of power.”

For someone who’s so passionate about science and medical research, Washington’s view of the field is not always rosy. She said our culture often elevates science, pretending that the discipline isn’t affected by human failings like greed. “Science is no more pure, noble or blameless than the people who practice it,” she said.

And when those people make mistakes, it can have long-lasting consequences. The fallout from the medical abuses against African Americans is that many no longer trust the medical system, which can interfere with their treatment or stop them from seeing doctors altogether.

Washington often hears white people express guilt about the abuses she brings to light. She said this reaction is understandable, since her audiences have benefitted from the research on African Americans. But she said guilt is useless unless it leads people to action. “I divide the world into people who are willing to accept an unfair state of affairs and those who aren’t.”


Participate in the book discussion about this year’s common reading, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

To encourage serious, intellectual discourse on Civitas, please include your first and last name when commenting. Anonymous comments will be removed.

Comments are closed.