For 40 years, public health professionals violated their solemn medical oath (“To do no harm”). They conducted research known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in Macon County, Alabama, on the campus of Tuskegee Institute, that was eventually found to be “ethically unjustified.”

The experiment started in 1932 when the Public Health Service, in conjunction with Tuskegee Institute, conducted research to study the natural progression of syphilis titled the ‘Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.’

As you are likely to know already, syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease and is particularly nasty. No-one would volunteer to suffer this disease for science.

THE DECEIT:

None of the Black males in the study, or their families, were informed of the true nature or purpose of the study. Researchers lied and told them they were being treated for “bad blood.” There was no treatment! In exchange for their participation, the participants received “free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance.” How conveniently generous?

The study enrolled 600 men, 399 had syphilis and the 201 who did not, were the ‘control subjects.’ Most were illiterate and poor sharecroppers. In 1932, there was no cure or effective treatment for syphilis, but in 1947 the antibiotic penicillin became the standard treatment. This actual cure for syphilis was withheld from both groups in the study. Withheld! Published reports clearly showed the men with syphilis were dying at a rate faster than those uninfected, an indication to stop the research and administer treatment.   Still, the experiment continued and treatment not given for another 25 years.

As per Wikipedia on the History of Syphilis:

In the 1960s, Peter Buxtun sent a letter to the CDC, who controlled the study, expressing concern about the ethics of letting hundreds of black men die of a disease that could be cured. The CDC asserted that it needed to continue the study until all of the men were dead. In 1972, Buxton went to the mainstream press.

Associated Press broke the story of the experiment that let not only Black men die of a then curable disease, but watched as they infected their wives, offsprings and an untold number of others with syphilis. Think about that, the US Public Health Service, the CDC stood by and knowingly watched Black men, women, and children infect each other and die from a disease that was not only entirely curable but preventable. They observed the spread of syphilis within the community to other men and women, who then gave birth to children with congenital syphilis.

Just muse on that thought.

A subsequent investigation concluded the study was “ethically unjustified.” While the men participated freely, they were MISinformed and never given appropriate treatment for syphilis. As part of a class-action settlement, free medical and burial services were provided to survivors of the study, their wives, widows, and children. The Centers of Diseases Control and Prevention continues to administer the program through The Tuskegee Health Benefit Program. The monetary settlement included $37,500 to living participants with syphilis, while heirs of the control group got $5,000.

This study demonstrated once again the exploitation and the appalling abuse of human rights of Blacks by the US government. Were any criminal charges brought against anyone involved in the experiment? Did anyone lose his medical license? Or were any health professionals sued? A sum of $37,500, medical care and an apology on May 16, 1997, by Bill Clinton, seem like an incentive to continue such exploitation.

What’s the worse that can happen? A slap on the wrist.

Bill Clinton Apologizes for Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

About the USPHS Syphilis Study

Peter Buxton

Public Accountability and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments: A Restorative Justice Approach

Stigma remains for Tuskegee Syphilis Study descendants.

The Tuskegee Timeline