What is the ‘right side of history’?

Posted on: Wednesday 12 October 2022
Author: Marcia Philbin

How to cite:

Philbin, M (2022), ‘What is the ‘right side of history’?’, Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine, 12 October 2022. Available at: https://www.fpm.org.uk/blog/what-is-the-right-side-of-history/

This blog article has been prepared by FPM Chief Executive Dr Marcia Philbin

The article presents the personal views of the author.

I love history and learning about figures and events that have shaped our current world.  At school, the history I was taught sanitised the exploits of the British Empire and only critiqued white historical figures.  By the time my sons were at school, the only significant black figure that was trotted out once a year in their school was Mary Seacole.

Such narrow teaching of history was, in my opinion, a lost opportunity to address prejudices, increase understanding and to broaden perspective of how ethnic minorities have contributed positively across the world.

Black History Month should not exist but it must because historians, educationalists, researchers and politicians have ignored or minimised the black perspective, experience and contribution for too long.

Take for example the NASA space programme.  I grew up learning about the heroics of astronauts such as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.  I even learnt about the first woman in space, the Russian Valentina Tereshkova, and the first living thing creature in space, Laika the space dog.  The only black person I knew who had been to space was Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek!  Clearly real life did not imitate art as the first African-American NASA astronaut to travel to space was Guion Bluford in 1983, 22 long years after NASA’s first manned space flight with the Alan Shepard-piloted Freedom 7.

In 1962, President John Kennedy visited the NASA space centre and asked a black janitor who was carrying a broom what he did.  The man replied that he was helping to put a man on the moon.   That man believed, rightly, that he was helping to make history but I can guarantee that most of those working at NASA only saw him as someone to clean up after them.  This shows the importance of context and perspective.

The 2016 film Hidden Figures exploded the myth that the contribution of black people was restricted to that of janitors cleaning up after everyone else.  The film showed the important role that African American mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn played at NASA during the space race. They did so against a backdrop of sexism as female mathematicians were seen as strange, and overt racism in the USA also meant they faced additional dehumanising racist barriers despite their academic and professional credentials.

Why is all this important for pharmaceutical physicians?  The scandal of the Tuskegee Study of untreated syphilis in impoverished African American men from 1932 to 1972 by the US Public Health body illustrates the negative impact of racism in health.  The aim of doctors was to study what would happen if the disease was left untreated.  The men were not told the nature of the study and even though penicillin had been available from the 1940s, they were left untreated until a whistle-blower exposed the unethical study.  Many of the victims eventually died as well as passing the disease onto their descendants via their partners.  The ensuing scandal led to the establishment of more stringent ethical reviews of clinical studies and an apology from the President Bill Clinton.  What I find amazing is the number of clinical doctors who have never heard of this scandal.

The scandal around the treatment of Henrietta Lacks from whom HeLa cells were derived without her consent, and the subsequent fight by her family for reparations and for official acknowledgement of what happened, is another stain on the medical profession that was buried for too long. In 2021, I posted a news story on LinkedIn about the University of Bristol, which has since erected a statue to commemorate Henrietta Lacks.

That post went viral and was shared over 185 times.  The number of researchers who work with HeLa Cells and who said that they had no idea about the origin of the cells nor knowledge of how Henrietta Lacks and her family had been exploited by medical researchers was astounding.  These and other stories fuel the ongoing mistrust that many in the black community have of the medical profession and is one of the reasons why there is reluctance to participate in clinical trials.  Historical truth, background and context should be taught to medical students to help them understand why trust is an issue and what can be done to address this.

Black History Month should not exist but it must because historians, educationalists, researchers and politicians have ignored or minimised the black perspective, experience and contribution for too long.  I hope we can all use this month to learn something new that will challenge our perceptions as well as enrich our knowledge of the contribution of black people to not only British history, but history world-wide.