In 1932, a study called the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male began. A cruel and racist experiment, it sought to understand if syphilis affected black men differently from white men. The study ran for 40 years – until 1972 – and involved nearly 600 poor and uneducated African-American men. A total of 399 were suffering from latent syphilis and the other 201 were a control group.

None of the study’s participants were informed they had syphilis or treated for it, and were instead told they had “bad blood”. The researchers wanted to observe the injection and dissect their bodies after death. Fliers for the experiment promised “colored people” special treatment for “bad blood”.

“All I knew was that they just kept saying I had the bad blood—they never mentioned syphilis to me. Not even once,” Charles Pollard, one of the last survivors said, in the book “Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.”

“They have been doctoring me off and on ever since then. And they gave me a blood tonic.”

Participants were not allowed to be treated

In lieu of compensation, the men were given free rides to and from the clinic, hot meals, free medical treatment for minor ailments and free burial insurance. The U.S. Public Health Service conducted the secret experiment and they never obtained consent from the participants. As treatment for their bad blood, the men were given placebo aspirin and mineral supplements.

Herman Shaw, a farmer and one of the men who suffered as a result of the study wrote in his book, “We got three different types of medicine. A little round pill—sometimes, a capsule—sometimes, a little vial of medicine—everybody got the same thing.”

Treatment for syphilis at the time was not effective and often dangerous or fatal but medical practitioners involved in the study still refused to allow the men treatment. A timeline of the experiment by the Centers for Disease Control said, “Local physicians asked to assist with study and not to treat men. Decision was made to follow the men until death.”

Indeed one nurse, Eunice Rivers, who acted as a medium between the researchers and the men, once followed one participant to a private doctor to make sure he did not receive treatment. Even when 250 men were drafted into the Second World War, the researchers ensured that they remained in the study instead.

In 1945, penicillin was discovered and used as treatment for syphilis and the U.S. Public Health Service created ‘rapid treatment centres’ to treat syphilis in men. Those involved in the experiment however, were still not allowed.

Study was unhindered, until a public outcry

The study was disagreed with for the first time in 1966. Peter Buxtun, a public health service investigator raised his concerns about the ethics of the experiment in a letter to the director of the U.S. division of venereal diseases, but was ignored.

Buxtun then leaked information about the study to reporter Jean Heller, who published an article on the front page of the New York Times, calling it, “one of the grossest violations of human rights I can imagine”.

The public outcry of this meant the study was finally ended in 1972; but by then, only 74 men from the experiment were still alive. 28 had died from syphilis and more than hundred from related complications. 40 of the men’s wives were affected and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.

Their descendants are still fighting

The following year, in 1973, the survivors sued and civil rights lawyer Fred Gray won giving them a USD9 million settlement. The American government also agreed to provide lifetime medical benefits and burial services to living participants. Now, the descendants of the men in the study have asked the judge to give them the remaining money.

The Voices of our Fathers Legacy Foundation wants to use the money to help fund college scholarships for the descendants and build a memorial garden dedicated to the men. However, a local museum in Tuskegee owned by Gray, has also requested the funds for an exhibit about the study and a memorial to the men.

Lillie Tyson Head, president of the foundation says, “It was meant to go to the descendants in the first place.”

The foundation has sent a letter to the District Judge Myron Thompson requesting him to withhold a decision on the money until they have time to hire a lawyer. The case is still ongoing. MIMS

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Human experimentation: Lessons from history
Ethical controversies in today’s medical research
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