With February being Black History Month (BHM), I usually try to provide others with information which usually is not well-known. You can look back at last year’s posts and see information about many firsts in black history; the first black physicians, the first black nurse, the first black to receive a patent, the first black to receive a gold medal at the Olympics.
Yet, one rarely hears about the negative aspects of black history such as The Tuskegee Experiment—which are just as important for black people of today’s generation to learn and nearly impossible for those of past generations to forget. This post will hopefully help many of my people and others gain insight into what some of our ancestors have been through. I also post this so other African-Americans comprehend that many of the rights and privileges we are now afforded—and often take for granted—were flat out denied to our elders on innumerable occasions and to show that some damages to our race are even self-inflicted. Maybe this can help to inspire changes for each of us as a whole through positive action and improved self-reflection.
The Tuskegee Experiment was an infamous clinical study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama. This was done to analyze the natural progression of untreated syphilis in poor black men who thought they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government. It was then known as the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. Public Health Service investigators, working with the Tuskegee Institute, enrolled in the study a total of 600 impoverished, black males from Macon County; 399 who had previously contracted syphilis before the study began, and 201 without the disease.
These men—who were for the most part illiterate sharecroppers from one of the poorest counties in Alabama—were never told what disease they were suffering from or of its seriousness. Researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance. Although originally projected to last 6 months, the study actually went on for 40 years!!!
At the start of the study (1932), there was no proven treatment for syphilis. But even after penicillin became a standard cure for the disease in 1947, the medicine—and any information regarding it—was withheld from the men. In fact, scientists prevented participants from accessing syphilis treatment programs available to others in the area. When several nationwide campaigns to eradicate venereal disease came to Macon County, the men were prevented from participating. During World War II, 250 of the men registered for the draft and were consequently ordered to get treatment for syphilis, only to have the Public Health Service exempt them from receiving it.
The Tuskegee scientists wanted to continue to study how the disease spreads and kills. The data for the experiment was to be collected from autopsies of the men, and they were thus deliberately left to degenerate under the ravages of tertiary syphilis—which can include tumors, heart disease, paralysis, blindness, insanity, and death. “As I see it,” one of the doctors involved explained, “we have no further interest in these patients until they die.”
At the origins of the study and throughout its entirety were countless Caucasian physicians, nurses, public health officials, scientists, etc.However, perhaps the same can be said of several blacks in similar positions and vocations. Robert Russa Moton—the head of Tuskegee Institute at the time—and Dr. Eugene Dibble, an African-American doctor who was head of the John Andrew Hospital at the Tuskegee Institute, both lent their endorsement and institutional resources to the government study. Eunice Rivers, a black nurse who trained at Tuskegee Institute, was a central figure in the experiment for most of its forty years.
The experiment lasted four decades, until public health workers leaked the story to the media. Associated Press reporter Jean Heller wrote an article on July 25, 1972 in the Washington Evening Star newspaper with the headline on its front page reading “Syphilis Patients Died Untreated.” This story caused a public outcry that led the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs to appoint an Ad Hoc Advisory Panel to review the study. The panel had nine members from the fields of medicine, law, religion, labor, education, health administration, and public affairs.
The panel found that the men had agreed freely to be examined and treated. However, there was no evidence that researchers had informed them of the study or its real purpose. In fact, the men had been misled and had not been given all the facts required to provide informed consent. The advisory panel found nothing to show that subjects were ever given the choice of quitting the study, even when this new, highly effective treatment became widely used. The experiment continued in spite of the Henderson Act (1943), a public health law requiring testing and treatment for venereal disease, and in spite of the World Health Organization’s Declaration of Helsinki (1964), which specified that “informed consent” was needed for experiment involving human beings.
In the summer of 1973, a class-action lawsuit was filed by the NAACP on behalf of the study participants and their families. In 1974, a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached. As part of the settlement of a lawsuit the U.S. government agreed to provide free lifetime medical benefits and burial services to surviving participants and to surviving wives, widows and children infected as a consequence of the study.
I know this may have been a long article to read, but there is a lot more information and viewpoints to this story that would take hours, perhaps days, to review and comprehend. I hope this post has brought about some enlightenment and maybe even inspired people to undertake a bit of soul-searching. If so, then I think I’ve done the job I intended and above all that makes me feel at least two of my goals were achieved. Thanks for reading.
– Supreme Soul (a black physician with a master’s degree in public health)
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