Tuskegee Syphilis Study

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  • Topic: Human subject research, Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Human experimentation in the United States
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  • Published : November 26, 2012
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Clinton Kopas
Susan Gabriel
English 102
December 1, 2011
The Goal of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study
Research studies are constantly being conducted in order to improve certain aspects of human life and knowledge. In many cases, these research studies involve human test subjects. One of the more famous studies involving human test subjects was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that began in 1932. Most have heard of this study, few would ever claim that any good came of it. What had originally been a research study aimed at improving knowledge dealing with syphilis in the black male, turned into an extremely long and detrimental study that damaged hundreds of lives. Considering the damage that was done to the subjects and their families, it is easy to wonder if this study actually provided any real advances in medicine or medical knowledge.

The origin of the study had good motives, being that it was to promote the health of blacks in the South. The U.S. Public Health Service collaborated with the Julius Rosenwald Fund to conduct demonstration programs to control syphilis in southern counties. This failed due to funding issues, and the project had to be scrapped. However, the PHS was anxious “to salvage something of value from the project” (Thomas). So in 1932, a group of doctors recruited a total of 399 syphilis infected black men from Macon County, Alabama to participate in a study concerning the study of “bad blood”. The organizers took their initial idea and converted “the original treatment program into a nontherapeutic human experiment aimed at compiling data on the progression of the disease on untreated African-American males” (Herried; Fourtner; Fourtner). This study became formally known as the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (Herried; Fourtner; Fourtner; Thomas).

The formal name that was applied to this study may imply the true motives of the researchers behind it. The study was not necessarily meant to find major breakthroughs in medicine, but to simply study the effects of untreated syphilis. The researchers attempted to justify what they were doing by saying it was going to be for a greater good, and that these men got more treatment than they would have gotten otherwise. This may be true in a sense, but the men in the study were still intentionally withheld from treatment once penicillin was known to cure syphilis. By 1948, penicillin was known to be the most and best effective cure for syphilis. The study went on for 22 more years even though a cure had been found. There is no point in attempting to learn anything more about an infection when a cure has been found. The only treatment that the infected men received was treatment involving arsenicals and heavy metals. This type of treatment was not nearly as effective and researchers knew it would not cure the men entirely, just keep them from being infectious (Reverby).

It might not be going too far to even say that the researchers were conducting this experiment on the basis of pure curiosity. After all, there could not be much advancement made just studying the effects of syphilis in blacks compared to whites. Much about syphilis had already been known prior to the beginning of the Tuskegee Study. German scientists had already discovered most of what there is to know about syphilis over 20 years before the Tuskegee experiments had begun. “The cause of syphilis, the stages of the diseases development, and the complications . . . . were all known to medical science in the early 1900’s” (Herried; Fourtner; Fourtner).

It has been stated by many journalists and even some that were involved in the experiment, that nothing was gained from this long and drawn out experiment. All signs begin to point that it truly was an experiment based solely on curiosity. The black men that participated in the study were poor sharecroppers that would do and believe anything that the doctor told them. Most of these men had never even seen a doctor before...
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