The Infamous Tuskegee Experiment Caused The Suffering And Deaths Of Many Black Americans

A doctor taking a blood sample as part of the experiment. Image credit: National Archives Atlanta, GA (U.S. government) (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1932, the US Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute began an unethical experiment on 600 black men without their informed consent. Over the next 40 years, it would lead to significant loss of life and unnecessary suffering for the participants, before it was exposed in 1972.

The study – titled Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male – began with 399 men with syphilis, and 201 without. The goal was to “observe the natural history of untreated syphilis” in African Americans, essentially by tracking the men over the course of many years, ensuring that they didn't receive treatment for their disease. 

“Free Blood Test; Free Treatment, By County Health Department and Government Doctors,” signs advertising participating in the study read. “YOU MAY FEEL WELL AND STILL HAVE BAD BLOOD. COME AND BRING ALL YOUR FAMILY.”

There are very few who would volunteer for such an experiment, which the experimenters were clearly aware of. As such, they informed the volunteers from Macon County, Alabama, that they were being treated for "bad blood", and that the treatment would be paid for by the US government. What they actually needed treating for was syphilis, for which they hadn't even been informed of their diagnosis. Instead, they were given placebos by local doctors who were in on the experiment, and treatment that was known to be ineffective. As an extra incentive, they were offered free meals and, grimly, free burial insurance.

Already unethical, the experiment took a turn for the worse by 1947, when penicillin was proven to be a highly effective treatment for syphilis, and the experiment continued on regardless. All volunteers were now treated in the Tuskegee Institute, where the disease's progression was tracked, but never treated. Over the years, the men began to experience the later tertiary phase of syphilis, and the scientists watched as they slowly began to go blind, suffer from organ failure, develop dementia and paralysis, and eventually died. In order to conduct autopsies on their subjects, they began to pay funeral expenses.

Despite opportunities to stop the experiment and treat the men for their condition, no such move was made. In 1965, the researchers argued that it was now too late to offer penicillin to the men involved in the study, as the disease would be too progressed for treatment to be effective. In 1969, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who had taken over from the US Public Health Service in conducting the service, again opted to continue with the experiment.

The study went on until 1972, when a whistleblower leaked information on the study to the New York Times. When the story came out, people were outraged, and the study was ended shortly afterward.

"To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish," Years later, in 1997, President Bill Clinton offered this apology on behalf of the United States to participants in the study.

"What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry."

But for the participants in the study, the damage was done. By the time the experiment was ended in 1972, 128 patients had died of syphilis, 40 of the men's wives had been infected with the disease, and 19 of their children had had congenital syphilis passed on to them.


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