Syphillis Victims in U.S. Study Went Untreated for 40 Years

On today’s date 42 years ago, that story broke in the New York Times.  That story was the beginning of the end of one of America’s most unethical medical studies ever conducted.  Over the course of 40 years, doctors studied the effects of  untreated syphilis using a group of 600 Black males in Tuskegee, Alabama.  The men were monitored to see how syphilis affected them.  Even when penicillin became available as the treatment of choice, the men were still denied treatment.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the study from Tuskegee University’s website:

Where the Study Took Place

The study took place in Macon County, Alabama, the county seat of Tuskegee referred to as the “Black Belt” because of its rich soil and vast number of black sharecroppers who were the economic backbone of the region. The research itself took place on the campus of Tuskegee Institute.

What it Was Designed to Find Out

The intent of the study was to record the natural history of syphilis in Blacks. The study was called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” When the study was initiated there were no proven treatments for the disease. Researchers told the men participating in the study that they were to be treated for “bad blood.” This term was used locally by people to describe a host of diagnosable ailments including but not limited to anemia, fatigue, and syphilis.

Who Were the Participants

 A total of 600 men were enrolled in the study. Of this group 399, who had syphilis were a part of the experimental group and 201 were control subjects. Most of the men were poor and illiterate sharecroppers from the county.

What the Men Received in Exchange for Participation

The men were offered what most Negroes could only dream of in terms of medical care and survivors insurance. They were enticed and enrolled in the study with incentives including: medical exams, rides to and from the clinics, meals on examination days, free treatment for minor ailments and guarantees that provisions would be made after their deaths in terms of burial stipends paid to their survivors.

Treatment Withheld

There were no proven treatments for syphilis when the study began. When penicillin became the standard treatment for the disease in 1947 the medicine was withheld as a part of the treatment for both the experimental group and control group.

Thanks to Jean Heller, America was exposed to what our government had allowed in the name of science.  The study has a lasting impact on the Black community and its trust of the intentions of the government.  In addition, the uncovering of the Guatemala Syphilis Study which was led by the US Public Health Service has also impacted that level of trust.  President Clinton offered an apology years ago.  Like any other negative incident, however, nobody ever had to face any charges for the unethical behavior that was conducted.  It will remain a dark stain in the historical fabric of this country.

The recognition of this date kinda takes on a bit of a personal angle for me.  One of  my cousins has been tracing our family tree, and her research uncovered a relative that appears to have been infected because of this experiment.  I have never seen any list of the subjects, so I don’t know if our family was directly involved.  This family member lived in Macon County in the area where the men came from.  Her medical history matches that of someone who would have had syphilis as well.  It’s one of those things that we’ll likely never get a truthful and honest answer about though.

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4 thoughts on “Syphillis Victims in U.S. Study Went Untreated for 40 Years

  1. Absolutely indefensible and heartbreaking. I was in elementary school in the Deep South when the story broke, but I didn’t really understand what had happened until I was in college.

    It’s good to see that Tuskegee University is trying to make some good come out of it in the sense that there’s now a Bioethics focus at the school, but IMO, there could never be enough good to come out of this to outweigh what was done to the study’s participants. I simply don’t think there’s such a thing as a sufficient apology in this case.

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  2. I’ve never really been comfortable with the concept of human beings as guinea pigs, especially if the people being used don’t have full knowledge of what is going on.

    I have a friend who took part in a cancer trial and that was all done with full disclosure and came out well, so maybe some good did come of this, though not for the participants of the time.

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    • An open trial where all the details are laid out up front is one thing, and if a person agrees to such a trial after being explained everything, I don’t see how people could get upset about that. Conducting trials without any knowledge or consent is something entirely different.

      I think that this did help us overall, but I just hate that so many had to suffer so greatly to get us here.

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