Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment on Black Men Exposed 50 Years Ago


In the fall of 1932, flyers began appearing in Macon County, Alabama, promising “people of color” special treatment for “bad blood”.

“Free blood test; Free treatment, by county health department and government physicians,” the black-and-white signs read. “YOU CAN FEEL GOOD AND STILL HAVE BAD BLOOD. COME BRING YOUR WHOLE FAMILY.”

Hundreds of men – all black and many of them poor – signed up. Some of the men thought they were being treated for rheumatism or stomach aches. They were promised free meals, free medical exams and free funeral insurance.

What the signs never told them was that they would be part of the ‘Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in Black Males’, a secret experiment conducted by the US Public Health Service to study the progression of deadly venereal disease – without treatment.

On July 26, 1972 – 50 years ago on Tuesday – the public learned of Tuskegee’s horrific experience when a New York Times front-page story revealed the men had been deliberately left without treatment for 40 years. The revelation led to the termination of the study, congressional hearings and a class action lawsuit.

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The study recruited 600 black men, of whom 399 were diagnosed with syphilis and 201 were a control group without the disease. The researchers never obtained informed consent from the men and never told the men with syphilis that they were not being treated but were simply being watched until they died and their bodies being examined for detect the ravages of disease.

Charles Pollard, one of the last survivors, recalled hearing that men were getting free medical exams at a local one-room schoolhouse, according to James H. Jones’ book “Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.” “.

“So I went and they told me I had bad blood,” Pollard recalled. “And that’s what they’ve been telling me ever since. They come in once in a while and check me out and they say, ‘Charlie, you have bad blood.’ ”

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In the book, Herman Shaw, a farmer, recounts hearing about the study as a kind of health care program. “People said you could get free medicine for yourself and things like that, and they would have a meeting at Salmon Chapel on a certain date.” So he left.

At the start of the study, treatment for syphilis was not effective; it was often dangerous and deadly. But even after the discovery and use of penicillin as a treatment for the disease, the men in the Tuskegee study were not offered the antibiotic.

“All I knew was that they kept saying I had the wrong blood – they never mentioned syphilis to me. Not once,” said Pollard, who added “They’ve healed me from time to time since then. And they gave me a blood tonic.”

Shaw explained, “We have three different types of drugs. A little round pill – sometimes a capsule – sometimes a little bottle of medicine – everyone got the same thing.

Although initially planned to last six months, the study extended over 40 years. “Local doctors asked to help with the study, not to treat the men,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in a timeline of the experiment. “The decision was made to follow the men to death.”

Eunice Rivers, a local nurse, was hired by doctors to serve as a recruiter and intermediary between the researchers and the men. Nurse Rivers, as she became known, kept records of the men and took them to government doctors when they visited the community. She drove them to doctor’s appointments in “a shiny station wagon with the government emblem on the front door,” according to “Bad Blood.” On one occasion, she followed a man to a private doctor to ensure he did not receive treatment.

By 1945, according to the CDC’s timeline, penicillin was “accepted as the treatment of choice for syphilis.” The United States Public Health Service set up what they called “Rapid Treatment Centers” to help men with syphilis – with the exception of the men in the Tuskegee study.

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In 1966, Peter Buxton, a public health service investigator, raised concerns about the study. He wrote to the director of the American Division of Venereal Diseases about the ethics of the experiment. But the agency ignored Buxtun’s concerns.

Buxtun eventually leaked information about the study to an Associated Press reporter named Jean Heller, who years later called it “one of the most egregious violations of human rights I can think of.” to imagine”. On July 26, 1972, Heller’s story about the experience appeared on the front page of The New York Times.

The study was eventually halted, and the following year a congressional subcommittee held hearings on the Tuskegee experiment.

In 1973, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the men in the study by Fred Gray, the civil rights attorney who had represented Rosa Parks. Pollard was among those he represented.

A $10 million settlement has been reached in this case. “The U.S. government has promised to provide lifelong medical benefits and funeral services to all living participants,” the CDC reported.

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In 1974, Congress passed the National Research Act, which sought to prevent the exploitation of human subjects by researchers.

On May 16, 1997, President Bill Clinton issued an apology to the remaining eight survivors of the experiment.

“The United States government did something that was wrong – deeply, deeply, morally wrong,” Clinton said. “It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens. To survivors, wives and family members, children and grandchildren, I say what you know: no power on earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of inner torment and grief. ‘anguish. What has been done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government has done is shameful, and I’m sorry.

On July 7, Gray, the attorney who filed the class action lawsuit, was among 17 people who were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Biden.

“When I filed the various civil rights cases from 1955 to date, I was concerned that African Americans would be given the same constitutional rights as all other Americans,” Gray said in a statement. “We have made substantial progress, but the fight for the elimination of racism and for equal justice continues. I hope this award will encourage other Americans to do what they can to accomplish the task so that all American citizens are treated equally, equally and fairly, in accordance with the Constitution.

A version of this story originally aired on May 16, 2017.

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