Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

Group of Tuskegee experiment test subjects. By Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Public Health Service. Health Services and Mental Health Administration. Center for Disease Control. Venereal Disease Branch (1970 - 1973). - This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 956097., Public Domain

The official title was “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” It is commonly called the Infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Beginning in 1932 and continuing to 1972 the United States Public Health Services lured over 600 Black men, mostly sharecroppers in Tuskegee, Alabama, into this diabolical medical experiment with the promise of free health care. For 40 years, hundreds of African American men with syphilis went untreated, given placebos and other ineffective treatments, so that scientists could study the effects of the disease, even after there was a cure. None of the men who had syphilis were ever told they had it. Instead they were only told that they had “bad blood.” They were also never given penicillin, despite the fact that it had become a standard treatment by 1947.

The last survivor of the study died in 2004. This was not that long ago.

The Hippocratic Oath is used as a symbolic gesture that binds physicians to their patient’s well-being. Those who choose to take the oath makes an affirmation about treatment of those entrusted in their care, “I will do no harm or injustice to them.” It is commonly simply rephrased as, "First, do no harm." That was not the case with healthcare providers in Tuskegee, AL.

Below is an excerpt from an official admission of systematic racial discrimination issued by the United States President in 1997:

The President’s words confirmed the institutionally and racially discriminatory practices that have spanned not just decades as in this case, but centuries. Medical malfeasance is nothing new. Currently, amends are being made symbolically. In 2018, New York City finally removed an offensive statue from high atop a pedestal in Central Park. The statue depicted an infamous 19th-century gynecologist who experimented on enslaved women named Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey. He was part of a medical apartheid system that treated Black subjects as sub-human. He inflicted unimaginable torture because he operated under the ridiculous notion that Black people did not feel pain.

Remarkably, present day studies reveal that a frightening number of healthcare providers believe the myth that Black people have thicker skin and therefore need less pain management. The University of Virginia reported that racial bias partially explains research documenting how Black Americans are systemically undertreated for pain.

The Tuskegee Experiment was relatively recent and at least partially impacts the reactions to the current Novel Coronavirus pandemic. Black Americans have this recent example, in addition to a long history of other examples, explaining why it is reasonable to be suspicious of governmental medical information.