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date: 10 December 2022

The Tuskegee Syphilis Studylocked

The Tuskegee Syphilis Studylocked

  • Susan M. ReverbySusan M. ReverbyWomen's and Gender Studies, Wellesley College

Summary

Between 1932 and 1972, the US Public Health Service (PHS) ran the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Male Negro in Macon County, Alabama, to learn more about the effects of untreated syphilis on African Americans, and to see if the standard heavy metal treatments advocated at the time were efficacious in the disease’s late latent stage. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection and can be passed by a mother to her fetus at birth. It is contagious in its first two stages, but usually not in its third late latent stage. Syphilis can be, although is not always, fatal, and usually causes serious cardiovascular or neurological damage. To study the disease, the PHS recruited 624 African American men, 439 who were diagnosed with the latent stage of the disease and 185 without the disease who were to act as the controls in the experiment. However, the men were not told they were to participate in a medical experiment nor were they asked to give their consent to be used as subjects for medical research. Instead, the PHS led the men to believe that they were being treated for their syphilis by the provision of aspirins, iron tonics, vitamins, and diagnosis spinal taps, labeled a “special treatment” for the colloquial term “bad blood.” Indeed, even when penicillin became widely available by the early 1950s as a cure for syphilis, the researchers continued the study and tried to keep the men from treatment, however not always successfully.

Although a number of health professionals raised objections to the study over the years, while—thirteen articles were published in various medical journals, it continued unobstructed until 1972, when a journalist exposed the full implications of the study and a national uproar ensued. The widespread media coverage resulted in a successful lawsuit, federal paid health care to the remaining men and their syphilis-positive wives and children, Congressional hearings, a federal report, and changes to the legislation concerning informed consent for medical research. The government officially closed the study in 1972. In 1996, a Legacy Committee requested a formal apology from the federal government, which took place at the White House on May 16, 1997.

Rumors have surrounded the study since its public exposure, especially the beliefs that the government gave healthy men syphilis, rather than recruiting men that had the disease already, in order to conduct the research, and that all men in the study were left untreated decade after decade. In its public life, the study often serves a metaphor for mistrust of medical care and government research, memorialized in popular culture through music, plays, poems, and films.

Subjects

  • 20th Century: Pre-1945
  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • History of Science and Technology
  • African American History

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