An Interview with Presidential Scholar Dr. Harriet Washington

Above photo of Dr. Harriet Washington courtesy of Amherst College website.

Amherst STEM Network had the privilege of interviewing inaugural Presidential Scholar Harriet Washington. Washington has been a research fellow at Harvard Medical School, a senior research scholar at the National Center for Bioethics at Tuskegee University, a Shearing Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute, and a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University. As a medical ethicist, she has a unique and courageous voice and deconstructs the illusion of scientific objectivity. In highlighting the historical context of medicine through individual human stories, she paints a powerful and disturbing portrait of medicine, race, and sex. She pushes for political consciousness, even (perhaps especially) when it challenges established paradigms in medical history. 

These themes are demonstrated with greater nuance in her writing. Washington has written widely for popular publications and has been published in referenced books and journals. She is also the author of “Medical Apartheid,” which won the National Book Critics Award, the PEN Oakland Award, and the American Library Association Black Caucus Nonfiction Award. Her books also include “A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind” and “Carte Blanche: The Erosion of Informed Consent in Medical Research.” 

Rather than embark on a futile attempt to synthesize the complex history that Washington’s writing continues to unfold, I wanted to know about her process and motivations for these works in this short interview. A video of this interview is also available on the Amherst College youtube channel.

How do you make complicated scientific and medical topics simple but not simpler to a broad audience? Do you face any challenges in that process?

Translating scientific knowledge to lay people accurately and comprehensively is a challenge. But I try to do more than that, which makes it even more complicated because I’m not just imparting information about science. I’m helping people evaluate the ethos, you know, the morality of science: whether we should be doing things that we’re doing, and why. Very often, journalists make the mistake of taking shortcuts, and you’ll find them reporting only part of an article. And that’s a problem because part of the article that is highlighted at the beginning, whether you’re talking about the medical journals or a journalistic portrayal is typically what pertains to the majority of people. In this country is typically that which pertains to white people, people of means. If you’re not able to or choose not to skirt the fine print in the article and the nuances, you’re going to miss a lot of things that are very important to people who are not mainstream. And that’s a really important thing to do a very important part of translating, that often gets neglected.

You showcase many stories that are ignored by the “canon” and, in doing so, you rectify our understanding of history. Especially for such stories that have not been previously documented, how do you unearth them? Where do you find your sources?

I spent a lot of time–more time I want to remember–in the basement of the Countway Library at Harvard. In the basement is where you found 19th-century medical journals. And going through those, I found so much material that had not been included in the history of medicine tests, things people didn’t know about. There’s a treasure trove, but no one had actually looked for it. Several cases where I looked at original journals and found out the language was not what had been reproduced. Remember, that despite the kind of intellectual apartheid in this country, African American scientists and physicians have their own lore, and have their own body of work that is often marginalized or ignored. Looking at that can be extremely edifying. Their work is not of lower quality. It’s not more diffuse. It simply has been segregated from the main canon. But if you look in that work, you’re going to find a lot of information, and more to the point, you’re going to find a lot of new directions for research.

What motivates you when reading these books and collecting sources? What motivates you throughout your process?

When I wanted to become a doctor, I was dissuaded from I was told, “There are no black woman doctors. It’s not realistic.” There were still medical schools that did not accept applications from black people. And at 17 years old, I let myself be discouraged. 

I never want anyone to have that experience again.

And I know that a very powerful fiction has grown up around African Americans in science and medicine. It’s very powerful. And the canon of History of Medicine has supported that. Who can be a scientist, who can be a physician, messages about that are not merit-based, you know, people are told that black people are constitutionally ill-equipped, not intellectual enough. Basically, this kind of mythology that cuts people off from their dreams is something that I wanted to attack and dismantle. And everything I do has been powered by that.