I have always hoped to one day work as a health professional, and this course is opening my eyes to the weight this field of work carries. In particular, I cannot stop thinking about the connection that has been crafted between medical advancement and exploitation of human beings. I wonder, how did this link grow so strong? What enabled this correspondence to continue for such a profound duration throughout our nation’s history without being detected or ceased?
Within the text Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington, lays an exquisite yet horrific insight to what our nation’s medical history consists of. A passage that particularly caught my interest was the case regarding Bessie Wilborn (Washington 134). Washington describes how Wilborn died around 1950 and that she had Paget’s disease, an illness that results in the breakdown of one’s bones (134). Wilborn’s body was autopsied by Dr. Peter B. Wright and her skeleton was then used in a pathology laboratory at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) for many years to come (Washington 135). Wilborn’s skeleton was first shown at one of Dr. Wright’s meetings as Washington states, “…he displayed at that year’s winter meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons in New York City. Her bizarrely arresting bony cage won Wright a medal for originality” (135). The daughter of Bessie Wilborn, Frances Oglesby, attempted to receive justice for her mother’s remains in a court case against the MCG in 2003.
I wondered how Wilborn’s situation was even possible. How could her bones be practically stolen from herself and her family and used in a medical college without anyone asking where they came from? I further examined Wilborn’s case and discovered the court ruling of 2003, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia v. Oglesby. The MCG offered to return Wilborn’s remains to Oglesby and her family and pay for the burial arrangements, but on the condition that Oglesby would rid her claims against them. Oglesby declined and in the end, did not win her case, as the court determined too much time had passed since the incident for her claims to be validated by law. Wilborn’s remains were to stay with the MCG unless Oglesby was to work out another arrangement outside of the legal system. The court suggested she return to the MCG’s prior offer. I then googled “Bessie Wilborn Medical College of Georgia”, and the sheer lack of results was alarming. Only three results actually pertained to what I searched for. This left a pit in my stomach as all I could think about was that her story is still practically hidden to this day.
In this course so far, (Literature, Medicine and Racism), I have been rapidly exposed to shocking realities of the medical world I did not yet know existed. The texts we have been reading have pushed me into a realm where I question the medical field and its motives. One example of this being Wilborn’s case in Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington. My intentions of reiterating Wilborn’s situation and unveiling what our medical system’s history consists are to leave others with the same questions I cannot stop thinking of myself. Where does the authority and secrecy for unethical medical operations stem from, and how do we increase transparency for those that have been victimized? I also hope this blog post compels others to dive into silenced stories like those of Wilborn and Oglesby whose exploitation was kept in the dark.