The wicked study
In 1932, the US Public Health Service (PHS) launched a study to find out what untreated syphilis did to the human body and chose the town of Tuskegee, in Alabama, to conduct its experiments. It selected 600 poor, African-American sharecroppers living in the Tuskegee area as its guinea pigs. Four hundred of them had contracted syphilis before the study began, but they did not realise they had the disease. The other 200, used as a study control, were free of the disease. All were told they had “bad blood”, which many took to mean they had anemia or some other non-lethal malady.
As an enticement to participate in the study, which became known as “The Tuskegee Experiment”, the men were offered free medical care, and free meals on the days they were examined at the PHS clinic. They were also offered a free funeral. Poor and uneducated, the men gladly accepted, unaware they were guinea pigs in a study that would leave dozens of them dead and their wives and children infected with syphilis.
Shockingly, when penicillin, which cured syphilis, became widely available in the 1940s, the medical researchers elected not to inform the men and even prevented some who suspected they had the disease and wanted to sign up for a syphilis treatment programme, from doing so. “The men’s status did not warrant ethical debate,” Dr John Heller, a director of the syphilis experiment, is reported to have said when the Tuskegee Experiment became public. “They were subjects, not patients; clinical material, not sick people.”
Shocking as this is, perhaps the most shocking thing about what happened in Tuskegee is the role played by African-American health workers, like Eunice Rivers, who helped convince the 600 sharecroppers to participate in the experiments and helped keep them ignorant of what was going on for 40 years. “So far, we are keeping the known positive patients from getting treatment,” Nurse Rivers boasted to her bosses.
Other African-Americans, too, were complicit. The president of the black college, the Tuskegee Institute, allowed his institution to be used by the PHS to conduct its research. Several black physicians aided white researchers in their syphilis experiments.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study lasted 40 years, until the whistle was blown to the media in 1972 by Peter Buxton, a PHS employee. Before he went to the media, Buxton tried to have the PHS shut down the study, but he was told by the study’s directors that it would be continued until all the men had died, been autopsied, and the findings logged.
The New York Times headline of 26 July 1972 that broke the story 40 years ago was emphatic: “Syphilis Victims in US Study Went Untreated for 40 Years; Syphilis Victims Got No Therapy”, it said. In all, 28 of the men died of syphilis, and 100 died of complications related to the disease. There were other casualties, too. Of the men’s wives, 40 became ill and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis.