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Tuskegee Syphilis Study


The Tuskegee syphilis study took advantage of the level of poverty among African American men. Those involved were ignorant black American sharecroppers from deprived communities. At the beginning of the research, the common issue was malnutrition. A large number of the participants lined in areas that were dirty with poor sanitary facilities and dirty floors. It was stated the mortality levels was high due to insufficient clothing and food. Medical experts were not available for poor blacks due to the high medical fees. During the start of 1930’s, syphilis was widespread in various United States communities. The Rosenwald foundation collaborated with public health services to come up with the initiative in 6 states. However, the program failed due to lack of sufficient funds (Reverby, 2009).

The Tuskegee syphilis study was done between the years 1932 and 1972 by American Public Health Service. The experiments were done with the purpose of monitoring natural succession of uncured syphilis. The research started in 1932, the investigators included a team of the Tuskegee Institute and the Public Health Service. The experiment was done on the countryside of African Americans who knew they were receiving free medical care from the US government. The experiment was carried out on 600 black Americans who were illiterate individual from Macon which was among the regions most deprived in Alabama. 399 of these were already infected while the other 201 were not. They were never informed about the disease they had though the investigators informed them they would be given medication for a “bad blood”.

The experimental statistics were obtained from the post-mortem results of the black Americans, they were as such intentionally left to worsen under negative effects of tertiary syphilis. There are numerous myths about the experiments that cannot be overlooked since in some way, they are true. The first is that the subjects were injected intentionally with the disease. The other is that the black Americans were never given proper medication for the illness (Reverby, 2001).

Using the Black Americans as Laboratory Specimens

Information regarding the experiments was not disclosed to the black men to ensure their cooperation. They were manipulated as a result of poverty and the subjects were easily convinced by the great offers of free meals, burial insurance and health care. The black men failed to take time and find out the actual information regarding the research or the diagnosis made (Hastings Center Report, 1992). They agreed to undergo the experiments without questioning the likely risks and what the terms of study were. During the duration of the experiment, individual wellbeing in the US was linked to economic and social status in addition to race. For the duration of the slavery and division that took place after the conflict era, African Americans were neglected when it came to issues of health research. Eunice Rivers was a black nurse involved in the experiment. She acted as the connection between the US government officials and the subjects in the study.

Image 2Throughout the entire 40 year duration, she was part of the study. Her key duties were assisting in the recruitment of black men, to help them in dealing with their issues as well as securing the autopsies of the black men in case they died. Her focus was taking care of the black men other than offering treatment. She believed the men benefited from the experiment as they were offered free treatment. As a nurse, she was taught not to prescribe medication or diagnose. She always followed the instructions that were issued by doctors. The black men had great trust in her as she cared about them sincerely (Rusert, 2009).

The research was aimed at determining the effects the disease had on the bodies of African Americans as opposed to white men. The theory before the experiment was white men experienced more neurological complications from the disease while black men were vulnerable to cardiovascular illness. It was unpredictable how the results from the experiment would change medication procedures of the illness. It took forty years before one of the investigators made the admission that nothing could have cured or prevented a single infectious syphilis case or led to the key objective of controlling the venereal disease in the US. For forty years, the investigators deliberately declined to offer patients proper treatment even after validation of penicillin as the efficient cure for syphilis Reverby, 2009).

By the period the research came to an end, 28 of the African Americans were already dead, 100 passed away as a result of related problems, forty of their companions got infected while 19 children were born infected. These black men were persuaded to endure the fatal disease by a doctor who convinced them it was necessary for the study to be carried out. First, the African American were given Neoarsphenamine and mercury and the disease dosage though in limited amounts as such, they did not show improvements.

The investigators knew the small doses could not interfere with the objectives of the experiment as they did not have side effects. After a while, the syphilis doses were replaced by pink medications known as aspirin. The Public Health Service investigators misinformed the African Americans with a letter stated, ‘Last chance for Special Free Treatment”. This was aimed at ensuring they would show up for spinal tap, which they knew was risky and very hurting. Throughout the duration of the 40 year period, the black men never knew they were only part of an experiment and they were not treated. It was after the news broke out that they realized they were just used (Reverby, 2009).

After the Experiment

On July 25th, 1972, news regarding the experiment broke out in the Washington Star. It was published in an article that was written by Jean Heller. Her source was a disease interviewer from Public Service Health service. The investigators had however insisted the black men were volunteers and were not forced to take part in the experiment. Therefore, the government made the decision to halt the experiment since the public was aware of its initiatives. It was at that point as well that they made the decision to provide the proper diagnosis to the men with syphilis. Penicillin was discovered as the best prescription for the disease by the year 1947. As such, the U.S government offered support to various public health programs so as to wipe the disease out. Several treatment centers got formed and campaigns to address the disease were started. Only seventy four of the 399 black men participants survived to the end of the experiment duration in 1972 (Reverby, 2001).

Fred Gray, a lawyer filed a class suit which recommended that a compensation of $ 10 million should be given to the black men affected. He portrayed the Tuskegee case as one of blacks against the whites however, it was more complicated. The revelation by whistle blowers of the failure in the study later on lead to major changes in the regulations and laws of the US in regard to protection of individuals involved in medical experiments. Recent medical studies demand doctors should seek permission, state diagnosis and provide the individuals with accurate test results (Reverby, 2001).

The National Research Act in 1974 was approved by the American legislature. The congress created a commission that established the regulations and rules that governed experiments involving human subjects. The US president apologized to black American men who were part of the Tuskegee experiment and even held a national ceremony in their honor (Katz, 2008). The study as well destroyed the trust African Americans had in public health efforts which were provided by the government of the US. Majority of the blacks lost trust in the medical community and became reluctant to make contributions to the varying health programs, for instance, the organ donation programs. The study also contributed to the reluctance of poor black people to seek preventive regular measures. The Black American people also developed the belief that the government contributed to spread of HIV/AIDS virus due to the experiment (Rusert, 2009).




Hastings Center Report. (1992). Twenty Years After: The Legacy of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Vol. 22 Issue 6, p29. 3/8p.

Katz, R. (2008). Awareness of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the US Presidential Apology and Their lnfluence on Minority Participation in Biomedical Research.American Journal of Public Health. Vol. 98 Issue 6, p1137-1142.

Reverby, S. (2001). More than Fact and Fiction. Cultural Memory and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The Hastings Center Report [Hastings Cent Rep] Vol. 31 (5), pp. 22-8.

Reverby, S. (2009). Examining Tuskegee : the Infamous Syphilis Study and its Legacy. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press.

Rusert, B. (2009). “A Study in Nature”: The Tuskegee Experiments and the New South Plantation. Journal of Medical Humanities. Vol. 30 Issue 3, p155-171. 17p.

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