The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment


Doctor draws blood for medical research. Public domain.

In 2017, when writing about Neil Gorsuch’s book on assisted suicide and euthanasia I ended with a pair of links to previous stories I’d written about the eugenics movement, which had gained a measure of influence in certain intellectual circles in the 1920s and 30s. As political scientist Jeanne Kilpatrick once wrote, “Ideas have consequences; bad ideas have bad consequences.”

The history of race relations in America is full of bad ideas that resulted in bad behavior by people who had the authority to carry them out. One of these was the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, a.k.a. the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a clinical study initiated in 1932 by the U.S. Public Health Service. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) here’s how it all came down:

Documented Tuskegee Study. Public domain.

The study initially involved 600 black men — 399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease. The study was conducted without the benefit of patients’ informed consent.

Researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In truth, they did not receive the proper treatment needed to cure their illness. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance. Although originally projected to last 6 months, the study actually went on for 40 years.

A more complete account of what occurred is detailed here on the CDC website.

Sadly, this is not the only instance of unethical human experimentation. An article detailing various experimentation can be found here on Wikipedia under the title Unethical Human Experimentation in the United States. To be sure, the U.S. is neither the first or only country to march down this path. The horrors of Nazi experimentation are well documented, as well as the Soviet Union. It’s the involuntary nature of these experiments that makes them heart-wrenching. People who are powerless — children, slaves, the incarcerated, the mentally disabled — become the unwilling victims of others’ perverse ambitions.

You can read more details about the Tuskegee experiment here at Wikipedia.

What prompted me to write this was a factoid I read that Dr. Arthur Caplan, a Bioethics Professor at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, the same Arthur Caplan I had interviewed in 1991 while researching my series of articles on ethical issues in terminal health care, was the man who secured the first apology for the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the same year I spoke with him . (In 2012 Caplan and others worked together to secure an apology from the German Medical Association for the role of German physicians in Nazi prison experiments during the Holocaust.)

This Tuskegee incident demonstrates why we need ethicists involved in medicine. People cannot be treated like lab rats.

Can the people who conducted this study have honestly believed their motives were good?

Perhaps one day the misuse and overuse of pharmaceuticals in our schools and institutions will receive the same attention and outrage as this Tuskegee Study.

Photo Sources: National Archives and Records Administration.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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