The Tuskegee Experiment
– Written by Jennifer Perry, MD, PGY-3
Frequently cited as one of the original causes of mistrust and discord between the African American community and the U.S. Department of Health and all of its subsidiaries, the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” was intended to examine the progression of Syphilis in human subjects. After the promise of free medical care, 600 Black men in Alabama registered for the study in 1932; 399 of whom had the disease while the remaining 201 served as the control group. Researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments, while all the while they were given useless placebos such as aspirin and mineral supplements. Healthcare workers continued to monitor the participants and provide ineffective treatments, even though penicillin had become the accepted form of therapy for Syphilis in 1947, 15 years after the study began. The men paid the ultimate price of blindness, insanity, and death as their disease unnecessarily progressed for the sake of scientific analysis. There were no records indicating that the men were given the option to leave the study once effective treatment had become available. Although originally projected to last only six months, the study went on for 40 years.
In the mid-1960’s, Peter Buxton, a venereal disease investigator raised concerns to his superiors regarding the ethics of the study. In response, a committee was formed to review it. Ultimately, they elected to allow the experiment to continue, concluding only once all participants had died, autopsies performed, and data analyzed. Buxton then leaked the story to Jean Heller, a reporter who published the findings in the Associated Press. When the story broke in 1972, it was met with public outrage. By that time, 128 participants had died from the disease or related complications, while at least 40 spouses had been infected, and 19 children had contracted Syphilis in-utero. After the conclusion of Congressional hearings, the living participants and their families collectively reached an out-of-court settlement of $10 million, and new guidelines were issued to protect future participants of human studies. As part of the settlement, the U.S. government promised participants (later extended to spouses and their offspring) lifetime medical benefits offered through the Tuskegee Health Benefit Program. Although the government has attempted to make amends, including an apology from President Bill Clinton in 1997, suspicion of the government and healthcare services continue to plague the Black community.