Suspicion still simmers just under the surface

A Hopkins experiment in lead abatement stirs old fear, hostility in East Baltimore

April 23, 2008|By Kelly Brewington and David Kohn | Kelly Brewington and David Kohn,Sun reporters

For decades, residents of the poor neighborhood surrounding Johns Hopkins Hospital have had an uneasy relationship with the billion-dollar institution at its center. They viewed it as elitist, more interested in medical research than in their care.

While the hospital has worked to enhance relations, spending millions on community support and to serve poor patients, recent controversy over a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Kennedy Krieger Institute has illuminated historical tensions.

In 2000, researchers spread fertilizer made from a combination of human and industrial wastes on the lawns of nine East Baltimore homes in an effort to help combat lead poisoning. Hopkins says the fertilizer was a common, commercially available compost that did effectively mitigate lead and that participants and the community were fully informed.

But the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has called for state and federal officials to launch a criminal investigation, saying the study could be viewed as an experiment conducted at a cost to the health of the mostly poor, black families living in the area. Maryland lawmakers have urged the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate why it funded the study.

"This particular story about the sludge unfortunately adds to the continuing distrust of Hopkins," said Michael Eugene Johnson, state director of the Black United Fund, which has joined forces with the NAACP on the issue. "This may be an honest, proper study that was done, but the shroud of secrecy, the fact that information is not being shared, it has revived this concern."

Johnson said some people living in the shadow of Hopkins remain wary of the institution, even while recognizing it as a premier research hospital.

"It's always been known as Johns Frankenstein to a lot of us, even though we are well aware that Johns Hopkins is one of the finest research institutions in the world," he said. "People would say, `Don't go past there at night, you might come up missing.'"

Homer E. Favor remembers reluctantly carrying his 3-year-old son to the emergency room at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

It was 1960, and a father's fears were exacerbated by the fact that blacks and whites were treated in separate wards. Worse, were the unfounded rumors that circulated among Favor's friends and neighbors: at Hopkins they made guinea pigs out of black patients.

His son received life-saving surgery to remove his appendix, and over the years, Favor became good friends with some of Hopkins' most respected doctors and administrators.

But the "ghost stories" among some African-Americans about medical research at Hopkins and other research institutions in minority communities remain.

"There are still people I know who say, `Don't take me to Hopkins. ... Something bad is going to happen to me there,'" said Favor, 84, a civil rights activist and retired dean at Morgan State University, who has lived in the East Baltimore community near Hopkins for more than 40 years.

African-American skepticism of medical research was inflamed in the infamous Tuskegee Study, in which researchers for the U.S. Public Health Service allowed syphilis in black men in Alabama to go untreated.

The study, begun in the 1930s, continued for 40 years. Hopkins was not involved in that study, but the incident contributed to widespread suspicions about medical research in general.

When Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. arrived at Hopkins 38 years ago, the hospital had only recently become integrated, abandoning the practices of separate wards, blood banks, morgues and cafeterias for blacks and whites. He and other interns and residents lived in buildings encircled by a fence, designed to keep the local - mostly black - community out, he said.

It was not what Johns Hopkins himself had envisioned. In a letter to trustees upon founding the institution, Hopkins urged the hospital to be inclusive of minorities and the poor, making service to these groups a crucial part of its mission, Watkins said.

In fact, the second patient admitted to the hospital when it opened in 1889 was an African-American. That was a time when many other hospitals in Baltimore did not admit blacks.

"The problem with that was America," said Watkins, associate dean at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a professor of cardiac surgery, who has made diversity at the institution his mantra. "We were giants in medicine, not so giant in humanitarian efforts as much as race was concerned, even though Mr. Hopkins had instructed us to be so."

Watkins maintains Hopkins has worked to ease community discomfort. The hospital has 82 community programs designed to engage the neighborhood, examining such issues as teen pregnancy prevention, sickle cell anemia and crime and violence, he said.

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