A Personal History with Johns Hopkins

Alicia Wilson praises the treatment that her late father received at Johns Hopkins after being diagnosed with bladder cancer. Although Thomas Wilson was initially told that he would die within a year, he lived for eight more years, she says, because he was cared for by “one of the best doctors in the world,” Johns Hopkins urologist Christian Pavlovich.

“My dad got eight really rich years of life,” Wilson says. “I think it was because Dr. Pavlovich really understood the complexities of rendering care to a Black man who had a disease that Black men typically don’t have. The care and connections he gave to my dad really extended his life.”

Although Wilson grew up with a positive outlook of Johns Hopkins — she knew there were great doctors who wanted to help kids from East Baltimore deal with the effects of asthma — she understands that not everyone in the community had the same perceptions. She recalls hearing people say, “Hopkins tests on Black people,” and “they experimented on us.”

Some mention Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman treated for cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. Typical of medical practices at that time, Lacks’ unique cells were collected without her knowledge and later used in research. Over the years, the HeLa cell line has contributed to many significant advances in medicine, from development of the polio vaccine to studies of HPV, HIV/AIDS and leukemia.

Since 2010, working with members of the Lacks family, Johns Hopkins has developed a series of programs to recognize and honor Henrietta Lacks. These include scholarships and grants to community groups, engagement with local schools and annual symposia. Additionally, a multidisciplinary building to be constructed on the East Baltimore campus will bear her name.

“I refuse to judge any institution by the worst thing they’ve done or by the best thing they’ve done — it’s important to look at the sum total. And Hopkins is a great institution, sum total,” Wilson says.