The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment


Dr Drawing Test Subject’s Blood. Wikimedia

By: Medical History Staff Writer Sherry Michaels Perry

The Tuskegee Experiment of Nazi Germany……no, to my great shame, Macon County Alabama, USA.

We have all read of the horrors of the Holocaust and wondered how a human being could be so cruel to another human being, without batting an eye. We perhaps tell ourselves that it was those terrible Nazis and feel proud that we live in the USA where nothing like that could ever happen. Well gather around and let me tell you a tale of some good ole southern folk from Macon County Alabama, USA.

In 1932 a group called the US Public Health Services (PHS) working out of the Tuskegee Institute, started “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”. Their goal was to observe the course of the untreated disease and follow the subject to his death and then an autopsy could be performed to give even more answers. They recruited a group of about 600 sharecroppers, many of whom had not ever visited a doctor, and told them all that they had “bad blood” and that they needed to be treated. Originally there were 399 with syphilis and 201 without and they were treated with aspirin and mineral supplements that they all thought were real medicines. The local doctors were asked not to treat these men if they presented in the office with symptoms of syphilis.

Now these men had wives and families and they were not told that they had a communicable disease. Their spouses were not warned and they were not warned to protect their wives. The PHS simply did not care about these people or the impact this disease would have on them. In my opinion they were no better than the Nazis; I believe they saw this population as less than human and expendable.  So these people were left to die, go blind and or insane.

In the mid 1960’s a PHS investigator expressed concern and PHS performed an in depth investigation of the study. They concluded that nothing was wrong and that the experiment could continue so they could track the men to their death and perform autopsies. He leaked the story to the press and the public outcry forced the stoppage of the experiment. At this time 128 men had died, 40 spouses diagnosed with syphilis and 19 children born who had acquired it at birth. And who knows how many were blind and insane by this time.

The public outcry did produce some legislation to prevent this from happening again, but keep in mind that there was already legislation during this time the Nuremberg Code in 1947 that stated that no experiments could be performed on a person without their informed consent, I guess they just chose to ignore that.  There was a 10 million dollar out of court settlement, but how much did that help the dead men?

In 1997 President Clinton issued a formal apology to the remaining survivors, I believe there were 6, 5 of them were at the speech. I feel it was too little too late and small consolation. The final study participant died in 2004.

Published by TheOddPast by Matthew A. Perry

Writer, teacher, broadcaster, and podcaster from West Virginia. I write about and discuss the wacky and weird side of history on my website and my podcast "The Odd Past Podcast" available everywhere

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