Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment



Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted an

experiment on 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis. These men, 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. Informed that they
were being

treated for “bad blood,” their doctors had no intention of curing them of
syphilis at all.

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. One
of the doctors

involved said: “we have no further interest in these patients until they
die.”

The sharecroppers\' easy to manipulate because they were poor and liked the
idea of

free medical care, said James Jones. He also said they were pawns in “the
longest non-

therapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history.”

The study was to compare blacks and whites reaction to syphilis, thinking
that whites

experienced more neurological complications from syphilis whereas blacks
would have

more cardiovascular damage. How this knowledge would have changed clinical
treatment

of syphilis is uncertain. It took almost forty years before someone involved
in the study

took a hard and honest look at the end results, concluding that “nothing
learned will

prevent, find, or cure a single case of infectious syphilis or bring us
closer to our basic

mission of controlling venereal disease in the United States.” When the
media caught a

hold of the experiment in 1972, news anchor Harry Reasoner described it as an

experiment that “used human beings as laboratory animals in a long and
inefficient study

of how long it takes syphilis to kill someone.”

By the end of the experiment, 28 of the men had died directly of syphilis,
100 were

dead of complications of the disease, 40 of their wives had been infected,
and 19 of their

children had congenital syphilis. To get the community to support the
experiment, one of

the original doctors admitted it “was necessary to carry on this study
under the guise of a

demonstration and provide treatment.” At first, the men were prescribed “syphilis

remedies of the day,” bismuth, neoarsphenamine, and mercury, but in such
small amounts

that only 3 percent showed any improvement. These token doses of medicine
were good

public relations and did not interfere with the true aims of the study.
Eventually, all

syphilis treatment was replaced with “pink medicine” aspirin. To ensure
that the men

would show up for a painful and potentially dangerous spinal tap, “the PHS
doctors

misled them with a letter full of promotional hype:” “Last Chance for
Special Free

Treatment.” The fact that autopsies would eventually be required was also
concealed. A

doctor explained, “If the colored population becomes aware that accepting
free hospital

care means a post-mortem, every darky will leave Macon County . . .” Even
the Surgeon

General of the United States participated in enticing the men to remain in
the experiment,

sending them certificates of appreciation after 25 years in the study.

Believe it or not, not only white people took part in the experiment, black
people

were also involved. The experiment\'s name comes from the Tuskegee Institute,
the black

university founded by Booker T. Washington. Its affiliated hospital lent the
PHS its

medical facilities for the study, and other predominantly black institutions
as well as local

black doctors also participated. Eunice Rivers, a black nurse, played a huge
part in the

experiment for 40 years. A lot of them did it for the promise of great
recognition. A

Tuskegee doctor, for example, praised “the educational advantages offered
our interns

and nurses as well as the added standing it will give the hospital.” Nurse
Rivers said her

role as one of “passive obedience:” “we were taught that we never
diagnosed, we never

prescribed; we followed the doctor\'s instructions!” It is clear that the
men in the

experiment trusted her and that she sincerely cared about their well-being,
but not

enough. Even after the experiment was “exposed to public scrutiny,” she
pretty much felt

nothing ethical was wrong.

One of the scariest aspects of the experiment was how strongly the PHS kept
these

men from receiving treatment. When several nationwide campaigns to erase
venereal

disease came to Macon County, the men were prevented from participating. Even
when

penicillin was discovered in the 1940s—the first real cure for syphilis—the
Tuskegee

men were deliberately denied the medication. 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 PHS exempt them. Pleased at their success, the PHS representative
stated: “So

far, we are keeping the known positive patients from getting treatment.”
The experiment

continued in spite of the Henderson Act (1943), a public health law requiring
testing and

treatment for venereal