Tuskegee Experiment

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The Tuskegee Experiment

In 1932, in the area surrounding Tuskegee, Macon County, Alabama, the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and the Rosenwald Foundation began a survey and small treatment program for African-Americans with syphilis. Within a few months, the deepening depression, the lack of funds from the foundation, and the large number of untreated cases provied the government’s reseachers with what seemed to be an unprecedented opportunity to study a seemingly almost “natural” experimentation of lantent syphilis in African-American men. What had begun as a “treatment” program thus was converted by the PHS reasearchers, under the imprimatur of the Surgeon General and with knowledge and consent of the Prewsident of Tuskegee Institute, the medical director of the Institute’s John A. Andrew Hospital, and the Macon County public health officials, into a persecpective study-The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (Jones1-15). Moreover, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which began in 1932 and was terminated in 1972 by the protest of an enraged public, constituted the longest nontherapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history. Since the premise on which the experiment was based did not involve finding a cure or providing treatment, the question then remains why did the study begin and why was it continued for four decades?

In Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphhilis Experiment, James Jones describes the fate of the 600 Black victims. Ultimately, 399 men, who were in the late or tertiary stages of syphilis, participated in the experiment. In addition, 201 men who were free of the disease were in cluded in the study. Both groups of men were neither told the truth about their ailment or lack thereof, nor were they informed that they were part of a medical study. Medical personnel assured the subjects that they were suffering from “bad blood,” a euphemism that in the local parlance, reffered to many ailments. None of the men knew that the “bad blood” which coursed through their veins was contagious. None understood how the disease was transmitted; no one explained to them that congenital syphilis was passed on from female to fetus. It was an experiment based on deception, a characteristic that it retained for the next forty years. Through a historical analysis of the experiment several questions arise, particularly the issues of the men’s participation in the experiment and the black professionals who witnessed the study. Why did these Black men take part in this study? Why did the Black healtth professionals not challenge the study? The answers to these questions are interconnected and lies captive in a term Jones calls racial medicine (Jones 15).

Prior to 1932 information concering the origin, conception, developement, and the complications of untreated syphilis was known to medical science. The one element left to be known about this diease was a cure. By this time, scientist were well aware of the fact that syphilis was a highly contagious diease caused by treponema pallidum, a microscopic organism resembling a corkscrew. The disease may be acquired, meaning passed from person-to-person either during sexual intercourse or mixing of bodily fluids, or congenital meaning obtained through birth. The disease progresses in three stages: primary, secondary, and tertiary. The characteristics for the first two stages exhibit chancre sores, various mild rashes, bone and joint pain, as well as cardiac palpitations. Following the secondary stage is a period of latency where all symptoms associated with syphilis disappear, a period that may last from a few weeks to thirty years. At this time, delusion of health is shattered and the symptoms revisit with a harsher intensity. It is at the tertiary stage that the majority of the damage is done. Tumors begin to coalesce on the skin forming huge ulcers covered with a crust of dried exuded matter. Bones are attacked by...
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