The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment began in 1932, when the Public Health Service started working with the Tuskegee Institute to study the effects of syphilis on the human body. However, the nearly 400 poor black men who participated in the study were never informed they even had syphilis nor were they treated for it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the men were told they were being treated for “bad blood”, a local term used to describe several illnesses, including syphilis, anemia and fatigue. In exchange for their participation, the men were given free medical exams, free meals and free burial insurance. Although originally projected to last 6 months, the study went on for 40 years.
Dr. Taliaferro Clark is credited with the origin of the study after he suggested the racial variation in the effects of syphilis so that Southern legislators would increase funding for treatment programs. Clark believed Macon County would be the perfect location for the study as it had one of the highest rates of syphilis in the nation.
Tuskegee Institute agreed to support the study if it received “its full share of the credit” and black professionals were involved. Dr. Eugene Dibble, and nurse Eunice Rivers, who both worked at John Andrew Hospital at the Tuskegee Institute, were recruited.
Following Clark’s retirement, Dr. Raymond H. Vonderlehr was appointed director of the research program. Instead of studying syphilis during a defined period of time in the population, as Clark had proposed, he decided that the study would continue until all the men died and their bodies could be examined.
At the beginning of the study, there was no proven treatment for syphilis. Even after penicillin became a standard cure for the disease in 1947, the medicine was withheld from the men so scientists could continue to study how the disease spreads and kills. With the assistance of local and government health officials, Tuskegee Institute, physicians and draft boards, the men were never to be treated.
The experiment went on for four decades, until Peter Buxtun, a social worker and epidemiologist, leaked the story to the media. By then, dozens of the men had died, and many wives and children had been infected. In 1973, a class-action lawsuit was filed, awarding a $9 million settlement to be divided among the study’s participants and free health care to be given to survivors, infected wives, widows and children.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton formally apologized for the unethical study, saying what the government had done was deeply, profoundly and morally wrong:
“To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish.
What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say, on behalf of the American people: what the United States government did was shameful.
And I am sorry.”
Ernest Hendon, the last living survivor of the study, died Jan. 16, 2004. He was 96.
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