Tuskegee, AL

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 40 Years of Unethical Human Experimentation in African Americans

Sara B

In 1932 the CDC and the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a study in Tuskegee, Alabama. The study took place on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute. All the subjects in the study were African Americans who volunteered to participate under the guise of free medical care and treatment of ¨bad blood¨.

During this time, the diagnosis of ¨bad blood¨ could range from anemia, fatigue, and syphilis. However, the study did not intend to treat any participants, only monitoring and observing.

So how did the study begin, and why did these men sign up for the study?

During 1930 in the south, it was a time of extreme poverty; many did not have money to seek medical care, let alone treatment. The U.S. government was aware that they had to entice the participants, to enroll 600 black male participants.

In the beginning, no one was interested. Then the government enlisted the help of Eunice Rivers, a black nurse who worked for the state of Alabama. She acted as a coordinator for the program helping to recruit participants; it is not clear whether or not she knew, in the beginning, the real reason for the study.

However, she worked with the study the entire time, so many feel that she did know, especially when the patients did not receive treatment and began dying; after the study was over, Eunice retreated into silence.

Another lure for the men to participate in the study was offering free healthcare and treatment, a free ride to and from the location, free lunch, and free survivors/burial insurance. It was huge during this time, as all participants lived in poverty and had a 50% unemployment rate.

With the benefits enticing, as well as pastors, teachers, and local community leaders involved in the recruitment process, many who volunteered to participate felt like they were doing a civic duty.

With the help of Eunice, and the promise of free treatment they were able to recruit 600 black men into the study, 399 of them had syphilis, and 201 did not have syphilis.

Also, no participant knew that the study was designed to only study and observe syphilis when left untreated. The men were under the impression if a disease were found, treatment would have been given, as no informed consent was ever signed, and there was no mention of the patient having syphilis.

However, the patients thought they were getting treatment, as they had blood drawn, X-rays taken, and spinal taps performed as well as given placebos. At one point in the study, some men felt ill and died.

Reports stated that the men went to their primary care doctors since they had free healthcare, and once their primary care doctor found out they were in the syphilis experiment, they could not treat the patient. Even after a cure was found for syphilis.

In 1943 penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis, and still, the men in the study went untreated. To say it was unethical would be an understatement.

The study was projected to last only six months and lasted 40 years, from 1932-1972. It did not stop because it was unethical; patients died, many passed syphilis on to their wives and children, and patients went blind and developed mental illnesses.

It was terminated when a journalist named Peter Buckson, a venereal disease investigator, found out about the study and said this was wrong and unethical. He contacted the CDC stating his claims for the study to be stopped; however, it was unsuccessful.

Reporting that the government reviewed the study and knew men were dying but did not choose to end it. It was not until Buckson leaked information to the press that the study was forced to shut down.

At the end of the study, out of the 399 infected with syphilis, 28 patients died directly of syphilis, and 100 died of complications related to syphilis. Forty of the patient's wives were infected with syphilis, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.

The study violated many ethical standards and has been cited as ¨arguably the most infamous biomedical research study in U.S. history.¨

In 1973 an attorney named Fred Gray and NAACP filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the families of study 10 million rewards. In 1975 wives and children of survivors were added to the free medical care bill.

In 1974 congress passed a National Research Act and created a commission to study and write regulations governing studies involving human participants.

1996 Tuskegee Syphilis Study Legacy Committee to address emotional damages to hold federal gov accountable. And publically acknowledge, 1997 president Clinton apologized publically. stating:

What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry... To our African American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist

I would like to know if this will be our future in 10 years, a forced apology for what has happened over the past two years. Knowing what they are doing to the people, yet doing it anyway.

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I share legends, myths, and bizarre history, sometimes news. Living nomadically since 2018, currently in Colombia.

Pasadena, CA
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