Washington, Harriet A.

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Harriet A. Washington


Medical ethicist, journalist

Many people would be surprised to learn that, even in the twenty-first century, African Americans still have higher infant mortality rates, have lower life expectancies, die of cancer at higher rates, and are less likely to seek and receive medical treatment than white Americans. This "health divide" between black and white is a subject that Harriet A. Washington, award-winning medical ethicist and journalist, has explored throughout her career. In her writing, Washington brings together African-American health concerns with the history of medicine and bioethics to investigate the social, cultural, political, and economic causes of health disparities in America. With the 2006 publication of her groundbreaking book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Washington earned national acclaim for her exposé of the racist history of human medical experimentation.

Harriet A. Washington was born on October 5, 1951, at Fort Dix, New Jersey, to military parents who had met in boot camp. Though her mother retired from the armed services after marriage, her father was a career military man, moving the family of five children to bases along the Eastern seaboard and abroad. The experience instilled in Washington a love of travel and a confidence to adapt to new environments.

Set Sights on Medical Career

Washington attended the University of Rochester, aiming to pursue a pre-med track and go on to become a doctor. Her advisers, however, discouraged this as an impractical goal, pointing to the small number of black doctors at the time and the fact that many medical schools had yet to accept a black applicant. Nonetheless, she continued to take pre-med coursework alongside classes in philosophy and ethics, subjects in which she had a keen interest. She graduated with a degree in English literature in 1976.

Washington began her professional life as a medical social worker in Rochester, New York, first managing poison control, mental health, and suicide hotlines, and then running an adolescent pregnancy prevention program. After trying for several years to break into journalism, she landed a position as a writer and editor for two daily newspapers in Rochester, a move that allowed her to combine her interests in health, medicine, and writing. Subsequently, as an editor and columnist for national publications such as USA Today, Consumer Reports, and Emerge, she wrote about medical news and bioethics.

She was awarded a traveling fellowship by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing in 1990, followed by a two-year fellowship at Harvard University's School of Public Health, an experience that Washington has described as "revelatory." In 1997 and 1998 Washington was granted a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University; there, she researched human medical experimentation and developed the idea that would become her breakthrough work, Medical Apartheid. From 2002 to 2004 she gained valuable research experience as a fellow in medical ethics at Harvard Medical School, where she completed her book.

Exposed a History of Medical Abuse

Washington's Medical Apartheid grew out of an interest in how blacks are treated differently by the medical system. In an interview for the radio program Democracy Now!, Washington recalled an experience she had as an undergraduate working in a hospital. Seeing the charts of two patients waiting for kidney transplants—one white, one black—she noticed an important difference: Whereas the white patient's chart testified to the lengths his doctors had gone to obtain a kidney for him and the ample support he had received from both his family and insurance company, "The file of the black gentleman was very thin. The word ‘Negro’ appeared on every page of it … right above the single line that indicated that the medical staff's plans for him were to help him to prepare for his imminent demise."

In Medical Apartheid Washington documents a chilling and shameful history of exploitation of blacks by a white medical establishment in the name of research. For centuries, Washington shows, blacks were used exclusively or disproportionately as subjects in medical experiments, often without their consent or even their knowledge. In the process, they endured surgery without anesthesia, forced sterilization, and testing of potentially deadly medications, among other horrors.

At a Glance …

Born on October 5, 1951, at Fort Dix, NJ; married Ron DeBose. Education: University of Rochester, BA, English, 1976.

Career: Worked as a medical social worker; Gannett newspapers, Rochester, NY, writer and editor; medical journalist and editor for national publications, including USA Today, Consumer Reports, and Emerge; faculty positions at the New School, State University of New York, and Rochester Institute of Technology; Tuskegee University, National Center for Bioethics, senior research scholar; DePaul University Health Law Institute, visiting scholar; founding editor of Harvard Journal of Minority Public Health; editor and board member of American Legacy magazine; has also worked as a tutor in Latin at the University of Rochester, literary critic, oboist, and classical music announcer.

Awards: Traveling Fellowship, Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, 1990; Harvard Journalism Fellowship for Advanced Studies in Public Health, 1992-94; first prize for magazine journalism and Unity Award, both National Association of Black Journalists, 1994 and 1995; John S. Knight Fellowship, Stanford University, 1997-98; Congressional Black Caucus, Communicator Award of Excellence, 1999, and Beacon of Light Award, 2000; Research Fellowship in Medical Ethics, Harvard Medical School, 2002-04; Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science Desk Award, 2002; Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2006, Black Caucus Nonfiction Award from American Library Association, Gustavus Myers Award, and PEN/Oakland Award, all 2007, and National Book Critics Circle Award, 2008, all for Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

Addresses: Agent—Doubleday Broadway Marketing, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019. Web—http://www.medicalapartheid.com/. E-mail—[email protected]

One such experiment was the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Project, run by the U.S. Public Health Service in Alabama from 1932 to 1972. During this experiment four hundred African-American sharecroppers who were infected with syphilis had medication withheld from them so that researchers could study the course of the disease when left untreated. By 1972, when the experiment was exposed, nearly one hundred men had died of syphilis. But, as Washington writes in Medical Apartheid, the Tuskegee project was only "the longest and most infamous—but hardly the worst—experimental abuse of African Americans. It has been eclipsed in both numbers and egregiousness by other abusive medical studies."

Washington begins her chronicle with the case of escaped slave John "Fed" Brown. In 1855 the doctor to whom Brown was indentured administered painful blistering to find out how deep his skin color went. Later, in the nineteenth century, the respected physician James Marion Sims, who would go on to become president of the American Medical Association, used black subjects to conduct experimental gynecological surgeries without anesthesia.

Chronicled Modern Mistreatment

These experiments, Washington's readers may be surprised to learn, continued into the late twentieth century. During the 1990s, for example, researchers at Columbia University in New York injected African-American youths with the compound fenfluramine—a component of the weight loss drug Fen-Phen, which was discontinued when it was found to cause heart problems—as part of a study investigating the origins of violent behavior.

As a result of what she calls a "long, unhappy history of medical research," Washington believes that African Americans today have a deep distrust of the medical establishment, a sentiment that leads them to shun the medical system. Nonetheless, she stands by the necessity of medical research involving African-American and other minority populations—so long as it is conducted appropriately and ethically. She stated, as quoted by Kawanza L. Newsom in a review appearing in PopMatters in 2007, "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 medial system in the form of longer, healthier lives."

Washington sees this practice of medical racism being extended to Africa in the twenty-first century. In an editorial, "Why Africa Fears Western Medicine," published in the New York Times in 2007, she cited a case in which six Bulgarian medical workers were charged with intentionally infecting Libyan children with HIV—"the latest episode in a health care nightmare in which white and Western-trained doctors and nurses have harmed Africans." These abuses have caused many Africans to reject much-needed medical aid from the West.

Earned Accolades for Writing

In addition to Medical Apartheid, Washington is coeditor of the book Health and Healing for African Americans: Straight Talk and Tips from More Than 150 Black Doctors on Top Health Concerns (1997) and author of Living Healthy with Hepatitis C: Natural and Conventional Approaches to Recover Your Quality of Life (2000). She has been a contributor, columnist, and editor for a number of popular and scholarly periodicals, including the American Journal of Public Health, Consumer Reports, Emerge, Essence, Harvard AIDS Review, Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Public Health Review, Health, Heart & Soul, Nature, New England Journal of Medicine, Psychology Today, the Times (London), and USA Today. She is the founding editor of the Harvard Journal of Minority Public Health and serves as an editor and board member of American Legacy magazine.

Washington has earned many accolades for her medical reporting, including first-prize awards for magazine journalism from the National Association of Black Journalists in 1994 and 1995 for her articles "Examining Health Care Reform" and "Human Guinea Pigs," respectively. Her essay "The Vitamin Revolution" was selected as one of Health magazine's top ten stories of 1998. She received the Communicator Award of Excellence in 1999 and the Beacon of Light Award in 2000, both from the Congressional Black Caucus. Medical Apartheid was listed among Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2006, and the book garnered for Washington the Black Caucus Nonfiction Award from the American Library Association in 2007 and the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction in 2008.

Washington has taught at the New School, State University of New York, and Rochester Institute of Technology, and served as visiting faculty at Tuskegee University and DePaul University College of Law. Her multifaceted career has also included stints as a tutor in Latin at the University of Rochester, literary critic, oboist, and classical music announcer for the public radio station WXXI in Rochester. She resides in New York City with her husband, Ron DeBose. Her fourth book is expected to be published in 2010.

Selected writings


(Coeditor) Health and Healing for African Americans: Straight Talk and Tips from More Than 150 Black Doctors on Top Health Concerns, Rodale Press, 1997.

Living Healthy with Hepatitis C: Natural and Conventional Approaches to Recover Your Quality of Life, Dell, 2000.

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Doubleday, 2006.


"Examining Health Care Reform," Emerge, November/December 1993.

"Human Guinea Pigs," Emerge, October 1994.

"A Science Renga," Nature, July 11, 1998.

"The Vitamin Revolution," Health, September 1998.

"Gene Blues," Essence, September 2001.

"Burning Love: Big Tobacco Takes Aim at LGBT Youths," American Journal of Public Health, vol. 92. no. 7, 2002, pp.1086-95.

"The Care Gap," New York Times, July 12, 2007.

"Why Africa Fears Western Medicine," New York Times, July 31, 2007.



Alumni Gazette (University of Rochester), Summer 2006.

New York Times, January 23, 2007; February 18, 2007.

Washington Post, January 7, 2007, p. BW11.


Interview with Harriet Washington, Democracy Now! January 19, 2007, http://www.democracynow.org/2007/1/19/medical_apartheid_the_dark_history_of (accessed July 8, 2008).

Newson, Kawanza L., "Medical Apartheid: Exploring America's History of ‘Scientific Racism,’" PopMatters, January 18, 2007, http://www.popmatters.com/pm/blogs/post/10183/medical-apartheid-by (accessed July 8, 2008).


Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Harriet Washington on July 7, 2008.

—Deborah A. Ring

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