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Washington and Lee University

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David Doobin '11: Science, Society and the Arts

On the Ethical Treatment of Black Patients in the 20th Century

David Doobin is a senior neuroscience major with a minor in African-American Studies from Summit, N.J. He is presenting his research on medical ethics surrounding the treatment of African-American patients in the 20th century at W&L's Science, Society and the Arts conference on March 4, 2011.

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Describe your research project. How did you become interested in the topic?

My project sought to combine my two major academic endeavors while in college--neurobiology and African-American studies. For most of my four years here I never imagined it possible to combine the two, but after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, I was inspired to research medical ethics surrounding black patients. For my African-American studies capstone project I focused in on two cases--the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment that occurred from the 1930s through 1972 and the development of the first immortal cell line from Henrietta Lacks in 1951.

Many Americans are familiar with the Tuskegee Study, in which poor, rural, black sharecroppers had their syphilis monitored by government doctors to examine the progression of the disease, while being offered inadequate treatment. The case of Henrietta Lacks is less well known, but her cells are now the most widely used cell line in all of biological research, and if compiled, the totality of her cells would weigh more than a hundred Empire State Buildings. These cells were first removed by doctors treating her for cervical cancer, which was particularly aggressive, and were the first human cells to grow outside of a living person. She never knew about this, however, and died shortly after, and her family had no idea that her cells were being cultured until the 1980s. Both cases illustrate the vulnerability of the black patient population in the mid-twentieth century and lay the groundwork for an untold side of the medical ethics revolution.

How did you go about researching your topic?

My research consisted of reading primary documents regarding the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and the story of Henrietta Lacks, as well as a journalistic novel by Rebecca Skloot about uncovering the life story of Henrietta Lacks with her living family members.

What will people find most surprising about your research?

Medical doctors in the mid-twentieth century did not appear to target black patients for more inherently risky trials and procedures, but black patients were much less able to defend themselves against medical injustices than their white cohorts.

What have you gained from this process?

I have gained a better understanding of medical ethics, and the medical ethics revolution that took place in the mid-twentieth century.