Home History 20 Terrible Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment Facts

20 Terrible Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment Facts

by Sankalan Baidya
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The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was one of the most terrible and morally incorrect scientific experiments conducted by the United States government. It was outright violation of human rights and was an act of looking down at black people as expendables who can be used as laboratory rats and guinea pigs by the US government. All that US did at the end was to apologize. It is just one example of the heinous crimes of America. There are many others such as the Vietnam war and numerous war crimes were committed by the Americans without any eventual trial. That’s pretty shameful! We will talk about Vietnam war later but for now let us concentrate on the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment facts and find out what really happened and when did that happen.

Terrible Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment Facts: 1-10

1. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was conducted by the United States Public Health Service for a period of 40 years from 1932 to 1972.

2. 600 black men were select from one of the poorest counties in Alabama. These selected black men were African-Americans from Macon County and were impoverished sharecroppers.

3. Of these 600, 399 already had syphilis and rest 201 were free from the disease. The Public Health Service (PHS) wanted to see how the disease naturally progressed when left untreated.

4. The PHS told the selected population that they will be given burial insurance, meals and medical care for free so that they participated in the study willingly.

5. The test group was never even informed that they had contracted syphilis and nor were they informed how the disease would impact over the long run.

6. The PHS actually collaborated with Tuskegee Institute to conduct the study. This was the saddest part of the study because those from the institute who supported the study were themselves black African-Americans.

7. During the period when the study was conducted, Penicillin was already proven as an effective treatment for syphilis by late 1940s but none of the members of the test group were given penicillin.

8. As a matter of fact, the patients were informed that they were being treated for Bad Blood and the truth was kept hidden.

9. A study group was formed from the PHS’ venereal disease section at PHS national headquarters in 1932. It was formed by Taliaferro Clark with an initial goal of studying untreated syphilis for a period of 6-9 months and then begin with the treatment regimen.

10. Clark who also solicited the participation of Tuskegee Institute and regional office of Arkansas Public Health Service eventually found out that intention of the study was something different than initially intended and he backed out.

Terrible Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment Facts: 11-20

11. Oliver C. Wenger along with his staff played the most vital role of developing the initial procedures for the study.

12. The policies that designed the long term followup sections of the study were designed by Raymond A. Vonderlehr. In order to gain consent of the test subjects for conducting spinal taps (name of the method used for finding any signs for neurosyphilis), Raymond said to the test subjects that it was actually a special free treatment.

13. A nurse named Eunice Rivers who was trained at Tuskegee Institute and was working at John Andrew Hospital affiliated to the Tuskegee Institute was recruited for the study. Her recruitment and participation was advocated by Vondelehr on the grounds that she would be a direct link to the African-American test subjects.

14. Nurse Rivers was the only person who stayed involved with the study for the entire period of 40 years. Everyone else who was recruited for conducting the study either retired or changed jobs of the period. It was because of Rivers’ continued involvement that she played a very vital role in maintaining long-term followup whenever someone new was recruited by PHS.

15. Henderson Act which was passed in 1943 required that all venereal diseases be tested and treated. By late 1940s, all health care services in US had implemented the Act but only in Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, treatment was denied.

16. The worst part is that the test subjects were not even informed about the cure (penicillin) and they didn’t even know what disease they had.

17. The worst of all was that when the test began, it was believed that syphilis propagated differently in black men compared to white men and that syphilis in black men affected the cardiovascular system more than the nervous system. So, the study essentially wanted to see the long-term effect of untreated syphilis in Black people.

18. The study was initially funded by Rosenwald Fund but the onset of Great Depression ended the funding and fearing that the study would end because cash flow for medicine purchase for the study would stop, the PHS became desperate to ensure that people showed up for non-therapeutic and painful spinal taps and sent a letter titled “Last Chance for Special Free Treatment” to 400 test subjects.

19. Peter Buxtun who was a PHS investigator of venereal diseases in San Francisco became really concerned about the ethics and morality of the study in 1966. Finally in 1970s he went to press and on July 25, 1972, Washington Star broke the story. On July 26, the story made to the front page of New York Times. The study eventually ended on November 16, 1972.

20. By the time the experiment ended, out of 399 infected people, 28 died directly because of syphilis. 100 graced death because of the complications that were caused by syphilis. Wives of 40 patients were infected with syphilis during this period and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.

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The data that was required for the experiment was to be gathered from the autopsies of the test subjects. It is because of this, the test subjects were deliberately left untreated. Syphilis is eventually a fatal disease that over the long run led to paralysis, heart diseases, insanity, blindness, tumors and eventually death. Here is a quote from the comments made by one of the doctors who was involved in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment: “As I see it, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” That was outrageously inhumane, unethical and absolute lack of morality.

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Later, measures were taken to correct the incorrect. $9 million aid was provided for the survivors and the families of the test subjects and President Bill Clinton formally apologized in 1997 for what happened. Despite the measures taken by Bill Clinton and US administration, the psychological and emotional scars of the incident can’t be wiped out.

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Sources: 1, 2

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