A photo of a woman wearing a mask and talking in a classroom

Washington discussed the Nuremberg Code, the Norplant studies and the Declaration of Helsinki.

“Medical researchers are not the best people to criticize their own work,” said bioethicist and science journalist Harriet Washington on a rainy Tuesday this fall. “Police can’t police themselves. Writers should not edit themselves. It’s only good logic to have something exterior to look over what you’ve done.”

Washington directed those words to Gabi Valdivieso Calderón ’24, who’d asked about IRBs, or institutional review boards, which vet and review medical studies on human subjects. In Chapin Hall that day, Washington was the guest in Anthropology 245, “Medical Anthropology.”

About those IRBs: they’re mostly stocked with scientists, though the FDA demands they also include laypeople who represent the community being studied. Then again, only one such community representative is required by law.

“How can one layperson protest against all these scientists?” Washington asked rhetorically. “They have no authority!” She proposed that IRBs be split 50-50 between scientists and laypeople, given U.S. medicine’s long history of research transgressions, especially against those in marginalized communities.

This was Day 2 of Washington’s week as Amherst’s first Presidential Scholar. A new program, it brings prominent voices in anti-racist scholarship and policy to campus for short residencies. For Washington, it was a packed week, with some 20 events: She visited several other classes, met with students from a STEM magazine, offered insight to a faculty search committee and gave a talk at Johnson Chapel.

In Chapin, she spoke about everything from the Nuremberg Code on voluntary consent to medical studies; to the Norplant contraceptive studies in Latinx communities, which caused permanent sterility in some subjects; to philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s concept of utility; to the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki, a set of ethical principles about human experimentation, “which has been modernized and, in my opinion, eviscerated over the years,” said Washington.

She brought up a medical study on impoverished boys in Harlem, N.Y. Researchers offered $200 to mothers if they signed up their sons. “That’s an unfair inducement to poor women,” she told the study’s lead researcher, who countered that the $200 was a token of their generosity. To Washington’s mind, this well-off, Harvard-educated man “was coming at this from a very different place.”

Likewise, pharmaceutical companies “are very casual in their approach to informed consent,” said Washington, answering a question from Phyllis Oduor ’23 about studies in the developing world.

Near the end of the hour, Professor Christopher Dole asked about Washington’s next book. It will cover several African American physicians, including James McCune Smith, who was born into slavery and became the first Black man in the United States to get an M.D., though he had to practice outside the country.

A second Presidential Scholar, Kwame Anthony Appiah, arrived the next month. An ethicist, philosopher and New York Times columnist, he met with the Black Student Union, the philosophy faculty and others. Two scholars are slated for  spring: Viet Thanh Nguyen, novelist, MacArthur Fellow and Los Angeles Times critic-at-large; and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist and feminist theorist at the University of New Hampshire.

Photograph by Maria Stenzel