Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male

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Between 1932 and 1972, the United States Government engaged in a scientific study in which approximately 400 African-American men infected with syphilis were diagnosed but left untreated. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis was led by the United States Public Health Service (PHS). It took advantage of uneducated, poor African-American farmers from Macon County, Alabama. The movie “Miss Evers’ Boys” reveals that the Tuskegee Study was conducted by a group of Southern doctors, and tells the story of the 400 African-American men who were the uninformed subjects of this study, which sought to determine whether untreated syphilis affects African-American men in the same way that it does white men. Further data for the study were to be collected from autopsies. Although originally projected for completion within six months, the study actually remained in progress for 40 years.

At first, these African-Americans were treated for the disease, but once funding for the study was cut, treatment ceased. The study proceeded without informing its subjects that they were no longer being medicated. Miss Evers was told that once the Government realizes that the study has remained in progress, new funds will be made available within a year. But the study went on for forty years, without the researchers resuming the men’s treatment at any point. The men were simply given placebos, then observed. They were even given spinal taps ("back shots") to give them the impression that they are receiving treatment. Penicillin became available, but it was not administered to them, partly because of a rumor that it could kill them, but mostly because the researching doctors did not want the study’s outcomes jeopardized by this unforeseen variable. Most of the men died, and some went crazy; very few were alive at the end of the forty-year research period. The eventual finding was that untreated syphilis affects African-Americans and whites alike.

The study began with good intentions. In 1929, prior to its inception, the blood-testing of African-Americans was funded by The Rosenwald Foundation for Black Community Development in the South. These blood tests were intended to locate the presence of syphilis, after which treatment could begin. When it transpired that treating all the infected men would be monetarily unfeasible, Dr. Taliaferro Clark, director of the PHS, proposed the study of the effects of untreated syphilis (in its late stages) in the black male. This study was to be an initiative of the Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama. After Dr. Clark retired in June of 1933, Dr. Raymond Vonderlehr succeeded him as Director of the Division of Venereal Diseases.

The true nature of the study had to be kept from the subjects, to ensure their cooperation. Its goal was to discover how syphilis affects blacks as distinct from whites—the theory being that whites experience more neurological complications from syphilis, whereas blacks are more susceptible to cardiovascular damage. How this knowledge was to be useful in the clinical treatment of syphilis is uncertain. Regulations for using human beings in medical experiments are strict, and require that patients have a full knowledge and clear understanding of the experiment’s health risks and benefits. Yet the government doctors associated with the study refused even to use the term “syphilis.” Instead, they misled their subjects by simply informing them that they had “bad blood.” Even when penicillin became available in 1947, these men were denied access to it, because its administration would interfere with the findings of the study. Local physicians, draft boards and PHS venereal disease programs were given as information nothing more than a list of “subjects.” The only treatment the men received was aspirin and iron supplements. Since none of them had ever had more than a little healthcare, they believed that what they were getting as treatment was very...
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