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The Crossroads of Race, Politics and Medicine at UCI

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By Michelle Turken

Professors, students and community members converged for a day of history, poetry and philosophical debate at the ‘Slavery at the Crossroads of Medical Knowledge and Science: New Perspectives’ conference, held on Thursday, February 4. Hosted by the University of California, Irvine (UCI) Medical Humanities Initiative, the forum boasted speakers ranging from disciplines such as Africana Studies to Bioethics. While seemingly unrelated, these distinct subjects harmoniously merged to provide attendees with a diverse and innovative exploration of racial politics within the medical world.

Opened by Georges Van Den Abbeele, Dean of the School of Humanities and Douglas Haynes, Faculty Director of the Medical Humanities Initiative, the conference began with talks centered on the Atlantic Slave Trade and 19th century medical knowledge, culminating in a presentation by Professor Tiffany Willoughby-Herard (African American studies, UCI) and Professor Michele Goodwin (UCI Law and Director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy) titled Arts & Scholarly Research: The Anarcha Project.

Emotionally charged and thoroughly riveting, Willoughby-Herard and Goodwin mixed videos and performance with lecture and spoken word. They began with a clip showing the tragic death of Barbara Dawson, who was forcibly removed from a Florida hospital by police. This maltreatment embodies historic disparities in medical treatment between African American and Caucasian women, relating to the overall racial bias within our health system.

The Anarcha Project addresses these inequalities, giving voice to three Alabama women: Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy, abused on a “medical plantation” by J. Marion Sims in the 1840s. Widely considered the father of modern gynecology, Sims kept these slave women in a shack in his backyard, performing unauthorized medical experiments on them, without anesthesia, in his search for a cure for the affliction of fistula. By theatrically rendering Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy’s experiences, proponents of The Anarcha Project aim to make the struggles of African-American women tangible to contemporary audiences, with the goal of encouraging dialogue about poignant racial issues.

Laced with symbolism, Anarcha’s community poetry captivated listeners, making connections between slavery, the female body, pain, racial inequalities, Sims, eugenics and modern pharmaceutical industry. While reading the poem, Willoughby-Herard repeatedly wrung out wet rags over a bucket of water, which presumably served as an allegory for recurring African-American suffering.

Professor Goodwin supplemented the poem with detailed commentary on modern perceptions of J. Marion Sims, remarking that people often “read past what is in plain sight”, elevating Sims’ medical breakthroughs without acknowledging his flagrant human rights violations. Goodwin emphasized the frequency of this marginalization, discussing the 1927 supreme court case Buck v. Bell, in which the state permitted compulsory sterilization of the unfit, and citing the unethical collection of bodily tissues from Henrietta Lacks.

Known by many researchers simply as HeLa, Henrietta Lacks was a poor African American farmer whose mutated cancer cells — removed without her consent by Johns Hopkins Medical Center in 1951 — became the first known human immortal cell line, meaning they can undergo undergo cellular division indefinitely. While HeLa cells reap billions of dollars in profit and have contributed much to medical research, Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, and her family has difficulty affording health insurance.

By studying The Anarcha Project, Goodwin proposes that “students will come closer to understanding their history”, because it is a history that “applies to all of us”. According to Prof. Goodwin, it is crucial to understand that “someone else paid the cost for us to be able to have the [medical] luxuries that we embrace today”, and it is “important for us to know that history and to pay homage to it”.