African American History

Feb 18: The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

By Anna Perkins

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is a paradigmatic example of the injustices and inequalities that African Americans have faced throughout history.

In 1932, the Public Health Service worked alongside the Tuskegee Institute to carry out an experiment called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” According to the Tuskegee Institute, the men were told that they were being treated for “bad blood,” a term used to describe multiple illnesses, including anemia, fatigue, and syphilis. The true intent of the experiment was to find a cure for syphilis, because there was no known cure at the time. The researchers recruited 600 men – 399 with syphilis and 201 as control subjects – and promised them free medical care, transportation to and from clinics, meals on days that they were examined, free medical exams, and burial insurance. The experiment took place in Macon County, Alabama and was predicted to last for 6 months – but it went on for forty years. Most of the participants were sharecroppers – tenant farmers who give part of each crop as rent – and had never so much as seen a doctor. The promise of free medical care and burial insurance, as well as free meals, was an opportunity that they pounced on.

Though the purpose of the study was to find a cure for syphilis, the men who had it at the beginning of the study were not informed of this – only that they had “bad blood.” When a cure for syphilis was finally found, in 1947, it was withheld from both the experimental and control groups. They did this so that they could effectively track the disease – even though the men were dying, going blind, becoming insane, and experiencing other effects of the untreated syphilis. The men were not even given all the information necessary to fully consent to the experiment. The advisory panel at the institute also found no evidence that the subjects were ever given the opportunity to leave the study.

In the 1960s, Peter Buxton, a venereal disease investigator, found out about the Tuskegee Study. He believed that it was unethical and expressed these concerns to his superiors. A committee was formed to review the study, but the study was continued. They planned to track the participants until they died and then perform autopsies on the bodies to find out the full effects of untreated syphilis.

In 1972, the story was leaked to a reporter – Jean Heller of The Associated Press. She exposed the study simultaneously in New York and Washington, informing the public that dozens of men had died, and their wives, children, and a variety of others were also infected. Many U.S. federal agencies delved deeper into the study to come to a conclusion. Though the panel concluded that the men freely agreed to participate in the study, they also stated that typical research protocols were ignored and or deeply flawed. Overall, the study was ruled ethically unjustified, and was officially declared finished a month after the ruling.

In 1973, a class-action lawsuit was filed by Attorney Fred Gray on behalf of the men in the study, as well as their wives, children, and families. It ended in a settlement that gave over nine million dollars to the men who participated in the studies.

I find this topic interesting because most people have not heard of it, or do not know much about it. It is a lesser-known study that reflects the history of healthcare ethics and the treatment of minorities. I nd healthcare ethics very interesting and am always looking to find out more about how they came about. They have become very important in our society today and their development is interesting and bewildering, considering all that it has taken to establish the rules and regulations that we have in place today.

This topic relates to Black History Month because it really exemplifies the injustice doled out to minorities in the history of our nation. It shows how the African Americans were left in the dark and completely mistreated to benefit the greater good – and even when the benefit for the greater good was found, the subjects were not included in the advancements that were made. Through the unjust declaration of this study and the class-action lawsuit that was filed, an advancement was made in the field of healthcare ethics as well as the oppression that existed against African Americans.

This study and the advancements came from it reflect upon the idea that history does not happen in a vacuum. The advancements in treatment of minorities due to this study have bled into today, causing other injustice against minorities to be abolished, and creating a more equal society for all. The healthcare ethics that evolved from this study are also in effect today. Not only for these reasons, but also this event led to many other events that foraged for equality and justice for all.