The Black Prisoners of Stateville: Race, Research, and Reckoning at the Dawn of Precision Medicine

James Tabery, University of Utah

Abstract: The modern science of precision medicine was born in a prison outside Chicago 70 years ago. Clinical researchers with the US Army and the University of Chicago used Black prisoners at the Stateville Penitentiary to determine why some people had a dangerous reaction to antimalarial drugs, part of the larger war effort to develop antimalarial drugs and deploy them safely to US troops in Europe and the Pacific. The research, in hindsight, was shocking—it was dangerous and harmful for the prisoners involved; family members of the prisoners were recruited into the research; identifiable information about the prisoners was routinely displayed in publications; even after the Black men were released, they were lured back to give blood in exchange for money. The research, in hindsight, was also enormously influential; the scientists ultimately identified the genetic cause (glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency) of the adverse drug reaction, providing the empirical foundation for what would become pharmacogenetics and, later, precision medicine. The research conducted at Stateville is among the most scrutinized episodes of controversial science. It was hailed during World War II by American media; it was featured by defense attorneys for Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials; it was featured prominently when prison research was suspended in the US in the 1970s; and it has generated a steady stream of scholarly reflection on the tension between consent and coercion in prison research in the decades since. Surprisingly, the standard view of this history is that it only involved white prisoners, and that the Black prisoners at Stateville were systematically excluded from participating in the research. This article will reveal the unique role played by those Black prisoners, ask why their contribution has been erased from the history, and consider appropriate ways to acknowledge a community of people whose bodies and blood were used to give rise to precision medicine.