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Fronteras: The Heart Transplant Race Of The 1960s Came With A Cost — Black Body Experimentation

The story of the first successful heart transplant cannot be told without tracing the dark early history of experimental surgery in the U.S.

Author Chip Jones explores a tale of institutional racism within the American medical system in his book, “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South.”

Credit Richmond Times-Dispatch
Joseph Klett was the heart transplant recipient from Bruce Tucker. Tucker's heart was removed for the procedure without his or his family's consent after he suffered a head injury in 1968.

The evolution of modern Western medicine comes with a complicated history that often involved experimenting on Black and brown bodies without their consent.

For instance, 600 impoverished African-American men were told they were getting free medical care but were instead enrolled in a 40-year Tuskegee Study to examine how untreated syphilis moves through a population. Similarly, Black female slaves were subject to experimental genital surgeries without anesthesia by a 19th century physician.

This is just a small glimpse at the patients who unknowingly became the subjects of experimental operations and procedures that are now widely practiced in the U.S. today.

Bruce Tucker was also among them. In 1968, Tucker arrived at the Medical College of Virginia after falling backwards off a brick wall and suffering a skull fracture. Less than 24 hours later, his heart was removed and placed into the body of a white businessman, Joseph Klett.

While it was hailed as a major milestone for the race to successfully complete a heart transplant in the late 1960s, it also resulted in America's first wrongful death lawsuit.

Tucker’s brother, William, employed attorney and Virginia state lawmaker — and future Virginia governor — L. Douglas Wilder for a civil case against the doctors at the Medical College of Virginia.

Chip Jones’ research peels back the curtain on systemic racism in the earliest days of the American medical system, particularly in Richmond, VA, the former Confederate capital.


Chip Jones talks about the Medical School of Virginia’s ‘body man,’ Chris Baker. Baker was a Black janitor who helped acquire bodies for research.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter @NormDog1 and Lauren Terrazas can be reached at lauren@tpr.org and on Twitter @terrazas_lauren.

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Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1
Lauren Terrazas can be reached at lauren@tpr.org and on Twitter at @terrazas_lauren