If there is one message that you take away from this article, I hope it is that there is no such thing as political neutrality, and to believe that science is above the chaos and unfounded biases that the rest of the world operates within is nothing short of naïve. Scientists are simply people and are part of the same society and colonialist culture that have provided a foundation for many of the systemic inequities we still face today. Whatever biases are in play in the rest of the world also exist within the scientific community.

Scientific racism was used to justify slavery, apartheid in South Africa, Zionism, Nazi Germany ruling and many more atrocities. In the last 200 years, leading scientists all over North America and Europe, such as Harvard professor Dr. Louis Aggasiz and father of paleontology Georges Cuvier, were still claiming that Africans were a separate species, somewhere between orangutans and humans. Scientists significantly contributed to the formation of false hierarchies based on scientifically invalid concepts such as race and inherited intelligence. This has resulted in discriminatory policies that still exist today, has played a very strong role in preventing Black and Indigenous communities from fully succeeding in the academic world, and has left inconceivable gaps that further marginalized these communities. For example, white men and women currently make up about 78% of all working scientists in North America, while Black men and women make up just 5%. The problem has become systemic, a product of an institution that did not consider nor include non-white academics. The abuse of disenfranchised communities, which in North America inevitably
meant Black and Indigenous people, by scientists and doctors would take entire volumes of encyclopedias to describe. I hope to highlight in this article a few instances that we should all be aware of in order to become more cognizant of our own biases as scientists.

Racial discrimination in healthcare

Anarcha Westcott

In the 1830s, the abolitionist movement started to pick up speed in North America. At the time, scientists and doctors relied on the business of slave owners not only to make money themselves, but also to get free ‘test subjects’ and access to natural specimen across continents. Thus, as the abolitionists gained power, eugenics became more popular as a justification for Black inferiority. Eugenics used unfounded scientific evidence, such as skull volume, size and intellectual variation, to determine who would be allowed to reproduce within a population. While the idea of selectively mating the “most beautiful” or “most intelligent” people existed since the time of Plato, it only truly took hold during the abolitionist movement and into the 1970s. Around this time, doctors were also experimenting on slaves in order to perfect their surgical procedures. The “father of gynecology” Dr. Marion Sims operated on a woman named Anarcha Westcott 30 times without her consent, each time without anesthetics. Dr. Sims claimed that “Black people did not feel pain or anxiety”, a dangerous lie that still haunts medical treatment standards today.

A study conducted at Emory University in 2000 showed that Black and Indigenous people were less likely to be believed by medical staff, or receive the same treatment even when they presented with the exact same symptoms and health insurance as white patients. Another study from the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh found that Black children who came into the ER were less likely to be treated for their pain than white children. For example, 33.9% of white children who presented with symptoms of appendicitis received painkillers while only 12% of Black patients did.

Non-consensual experimentation

Margaret Sanger

A few decades later, the scientific community saw the creation of birth control and the founding of Planned Parenthood by Margaret Sanger. Unfortunately, this “pioneer for women’s rights” was also an avid proponent of eugenics and the creator of the “Negro Project”- a program focused on pushing contraceptives and limiting reproduction in African American communities.

A few decades later, the scientific community saw the creation of birth control and the founding of Planned Parenthood by Margaret Sanger. Unfortunately, this “pioneer for women’s rights” was also an avid proponent of eugenics and the creator of the “Negro Project”- a program focused on pushing contraceptives and limiting reproduction in African American communities.

This time in history was also marked by rampant sterilization of Black and Indigenous women. Perhaps one of the most famous stories is that of Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie was a force to be reckoned with, a woman who fought endlessly for the rights of women, especially Black women, and was compared to Martin Luther King Jr. in the way she was able to hold an audience. In 1962, Fannie went to a hospital in Mississippi to have a small tumor removed from her abdomen. Instead, she left the hospital with a hysterectomy. She had been sterilized without her consent. Fannie is just one of the examples we know about, but between 1970-1976, 25- 50% of Indigenous women were sterilized without consent, and many were denied healthcare for their children unless they agreed to sterilization to prevent future offspring.

Indigenous children

At the same time in Canada, scientists were busy using Indigenous children to study the effects of hunger on the body. Needless to say, neither the children nor their parents were ever asked for consent. In these experiments, malnourished children were denied food and instead given supplements of riboflavin and thiamine. Scientists watched as these supplements did not help and children died, yet the experiments continued in the name of ‘science’. The effects of this study and others just like it are still felt today, as Indigenous Canadians continue to report mistrust of the medical science community. Today, 58 Indigenous communities in Canada are still living under clean water advisories, and 1 in every 2 Indigenous households faces food insecurity.

Medical exploitation

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

In December 2020, the world was given the great news that several vaccines for COVID-19 would soon be approved. Since then, we have heard strong opinions on both sides, those for and against the vaccine. In the midst of a global pandemic, it is very easy to vilify those who are vaccine-hesitant and write them off as uneducated or selfish. However, more often than not, mistrust of the healthcare system and vaccine hesitancy comes from generational trauma and a history of oppression of certain individuals by the healthcare system.

One such example comes from Tuskegee, Alabama. In 1932, 600 impoverished African American men were enrolled in a study, where they were told they would be receiving free health care. 399 of these men had syphilis, but were purposely never told. These men were never treated with antibiotics because the Public Health Service (PHS) wanted to know what would happen if syphilis was left untreated. The study lasted for decades, all while the patients were left in the dark. Meanwhile, the PHS was sponsoring “syphilis eradication programs” that were using penicillin as a standard treatment for the disease. The scientists involved in this study actively barred these men from participating in any venereal disease campaigns or learning about upcoming treatments. The scientists involved in this study had a brazen disregard for Black lives; due to their negligence, only 74 of these men were still alive in 1972 when they were finally told about the study. 40 of their wives had contracted syphilis and 19 children had been born with congenital syphilis. To the scientific community at the time, these men and their families were nothing but lab rats to be sacrificed simply to answer hypotheses that were not even scientifically valid.

The effects of this atrocity are still felt today, with over 80% of African Americans reporting some level of mistrust of the US government in 1999. Polling of African Americans by the Kaiser Family Foundation from December 2020 shows that people believe that the government would begin vaccine rollout in African American communities before passing it out to the general public. Only 17% of Black Americans said they would definitely get the vaccine, compared to 47% of white Americans.

Henrietta Lacks

We cannot have a discussion on science and race without mentioning Henrietta Lacks. In 1950, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with aggressive cervical cancer. Doctors took samples of her cervical tissue without consent and realized that these cells were essentially “immortal”- they could divide and survive infinitely. Today, HeLa cells are found all over the world and are used in almost every type of scientific research. Biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies made billions of dollars off of these cells, yet Henrietta’s family and children lived in poverty for most of their lives, having never been compensated for their mother’s tissue. Henrietta’s name, personal information, and health records were shared publicly all over the world without her consent. The cells’ genome was even published online, never with consent.

A call to action

As scientists, we are part of a community that has aided in the terrorizing and traumatizing of historically disenfranchised communities. We like to think that science is above the fray, and that a system that relies on hard evidence and empirical facts to make its conclusions about the world cannot possibly be affected by bias. But ask yourself, how many Black and Indigenous scientists do you work with? When was the last time you collaborated with a Black or Indigenous scientist? Are you contributing to an environment that keeps Black and Indigenous scientists on the fringes? If we aren’t actively fighting for a more inclusive environment, then we aren’t any better than the scientists of the past who helped create this system. In the words of Malcolm X, to believe that anyone can succeed in our current systems is “a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”


References

1. Todd, K., C. Deaton, A. D’Adamo, and L. Goe. 2000. Ethnicity and analgesic practice. Annals of Emergency Medicine35: 11-16.

2. Goyal, M., N. Kuppermann, S. Cleary, S. Teach, and J. Chamberlain. 2015. Racial Disparities in Pain Management of Children With Appendicitis in Emergency Departments. JAMA Pediatrics169: 996.

3. 2021. Eugenics. HISTORY.

4. Owens, B. 2013. Canada used hungry indigenous children to study malnutrition. Nature.

5. Hammel, L., L. Lopes, C. Munana, S. Artiga, and M. Brodie. 2021. KFF/The Undefeated Survey on Race and Health -Main Findings. KFF.

6. Ralph V. Katz, B. Lee Green, Nancy R. Kressin, S. Stephen Kegeles, Min Qi Wang, Sherman A. James, Stefanie L. Russell, Cristina Claudio, and Jan M. McCallum. 2008. The Legacy of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study: Assessing its Impact on Willingness to Participate in Biomedical Studies. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved19: 1168-1180.

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Salma Sheikh-Mohamed

Salma Sheikh-Mohamed is a second year Master's student in the Immunology department at UofT, researching the use of Imaging Mass Cytometry (IMC) for immunophenotyping human tissue. Her recent work using IMC in the human brain can be found in a manuscript entitled Multiplex Imaging of Immune Cells in Staged Multiple Sclerosis Lesions by Mass Cytometry. When not working in the lab, she enjoys reading, baking, and working on her food photography skills.
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