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History of 'scientific racism' explored

The title says it all. "Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present" is an eye-opening journey that meticulously documents the "scientific racism" associated with medical treatment of black Americans.

The main point of the book is that medical abuse didn't start with the Tuskegee Syphilis Study - it began during slavery, when abuse was more overt because blacks had no legal rights, and continues more subtly in clinical trials today.

As a result, many blacks fear the medical system and large health disparities exist.

Author Harriet A. Washington doesn't ask for shunning of research studies or boycotts of physician offices. Instead, she encourages blacks to use their knowledge of the past to ask more pointed questions when entering clinical trials and to ensure proper care when they seek medical treatment.

"I challenge African-Americans to effect a transformation of our attitudes toward medical research and to demand our place at the table to enjoy the rich bounty of the American medical system in the form of longer, healthier lives," she writes.

Washington, a former medical social worker, medical writer and researcher, has definitely done her homework for this book.

She backs her statements with planters' records or slave narratives, conference speeches, scientific journal publications, federal documents and interviews with scientists or government officials.

Washington's wealth of knowledge brings a new perspective to many studies, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Project and to the contributions of scientists such as James Marion Sims, who is credited with advancements in the field of gynecology.

"Medical Apartheid" is divided into three parts.

The first, "A Troubling Tradition," is a chronological account that shows how physicians and slave owners worked in concert to either withhold medical treatment from slaves or provide them with potentially fatal treatments such as induced vomiting, bleeding or an untested smallpox vaccine.

It also highlights practices such as grave robbing, showcasing black body parts and the illegal use of black bodies for autopsies and as an advertisement to lure medical students to medical institutions throughout the United States.

The second, "The Usual Subjects," begins after the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and tells the stories of blacks such as Fannie Lou Hamer, who was rendered infertile without her consent while seeking treatment of her uterine fibroid tumor; Elmer Allen, who was injected with plutonium-238 during a leg amputation; and 6-year-old Isaac Johnson, who was administered the cardiotoxic drug fenfluramine after his mother was coerced into enrolling him in a study to determine whether violence was hereditary.

The third part, "Race, Technology and Medicine," explains the subtle problems for blacks with, among other things, DNA testing, bioterrorism and inventions such as artificial hearts and blood substitutes.

She also discloses government experiments that targeted inner-city neighborhoods.

Washington, a bioethicist, is careful to explain scientific terms and concepts.

This sometimes slows down the prose, but provides much needed context to the topic she is discussing.

In today's society, when race is in the forefront of many conversations, Washington has found a compelling way to give a reader pause, without instilling fear, when it comes to learning about the history of research involving blacks.

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