Three Times They Exploited Black People for Experimentation

Henrietta Lacks’ cells revolutionized medical research. They were used to develop the polio vaccine in 1952, traveled to space to help scientists examine the impact of zero gravity on human cells, and were sold to medical labs across the country. Lacks’ cells have been cloned to the likes of 20 tons – and until 2010, her story went untold. Now, through both book and film, Henrietta Lacks’ legacy and this country’s truth continues to live on.

Lacks’ experience of stolen cells would not be the first nor last time that Black bodies were used for medical experimentation – and without due consent. This historical legacy could explain the prevalent distrust between Black communities and medical professionals that continues to exist today.

Here are three other instances of medical experimentation that you should be aware of. But much more can be found in Harriet A. Washington’s, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

1. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study was designed to “document the natural history of syphilis.” It did so by using 600 mostly poor, illiterate Blacks who were infected with syphilis and not giving them treatment for the diseases even once made standard. To make things more unethical, the study’s subjects were not made aware that effective treatment for the disease even existed.

2. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” conducted multiple experiments on enslaved African women without using any anesthesia. In 1857, he’s quoted as saying that his operations weren’t “painful enough to justify the trouble.” To us, it’s better to remember the names of those he subjugated and abused under his care: “Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology.”

3. Medical experiments were widely conducted on American slaves in the mid-1800s, but also on the enslaved in South Africa, and other parts of the world. Electric shocks to test pain thresholds, amputations, and surgeries conducted without anesthesia were the norm.  Sara “Saarjtjie” Baartman’s physical body was put on display for profit and experimentation both during her life and following after her death. At fairs and zoo-like environments, Baartman was put on display to showcase her “large buttocks and unusual coloring.” Following her death, researchers dissected her body, made a plaster cast of it, and pickled her brain and genitals into jars, displaying them at the Museum of Man until 1974.  

These stories of Henrietta Lacks, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Lucy and Betsey, and Sara Baartman are just but a few of those that we can name — and they represent the thousands of others we cannot. Be sure to tune into HBO’s special, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which debuts in April 2017.