Three Things I Didn’t Know About The Tuskegee Experiment

In the middle of Snowden’s course on epidemics is this phenomenal one-off about the Tuskegee experiment. Here’s three things I didn’t know:

1. The study was designed to prove a racist hypothesis

Clark [the designer of the Tuskegee experiment] started with a profoundly racist hypothesis that he wished to demonstrate, and that is the simple one that the African-American male was racially distinct from the white male, and was so in ways that could be demonstrated by studying the natural history of syphilis in their bodies. […]

In the body of white males, the damage was overwhelmingly to their more highly evolved — and therefore more vulnerable — neurologic systems. He expected that the result in African-American males would be very different, being less neurologically sophisticated, their bodies would experience damage instead primarily to their cardiovascular systems, and proof was to be gained by studying the natural course of the disease in a group of males — African-American males — who were systematically untreated.

Let’s remember that this is a study that was based not on any therapeutic objective. On the contrary, the main interest of the syphilis study conducted at Tuskegee was to examine syphilitic black male bodies postmortem.

2. The study went way beyond the researchers and test subjects

This study continues from ’32 to ’72. By later in the 1940s, penicillin, a highly efficacious remedy for syphilis, was developed, and it was determined that the members of the study would be systematically denied the antibiotic.

Local doctors in Macon County were all provided with the names of the members of the study, and they were instructed by the Public Health Service that those men were not to be given penicillin. So the study continued for twenty-five more years, when a therapy actually existed. […]

In fact, there was a time when there was a great threat to this Tuskegee study, and that was when America entered the Second World War, because at that time there was the danger that the members of the study group risked being drafted into the Army, and that would entail blood tests. Their syphilis would be discovered, and the Army would provide treatment, ending the experiment. So, the assistant surgeon general of the United States intervened on behalf of the study and provided the Selective Service Board of Macon County with the list of all those men included in the study, and they were exempted from the military draft. […]

Well, by 1972, at the conclusion, 28 of the men in the study died directly from syphilis. A hundred others died of complications related to syphilis. Forty wives of members of the study were infected with syphilis, and 19 children fathered by members of the study were born with congenital syphilis.

3. This study was not a secret

There was, however, no intention in the Public Health Service to terminate the study, and this was not, strictly speaking, a secret study. There were published reports on a regular basis. This is really one of the more disconcerting parts of this study. What does it say about our society at the time?

In other words, this is a study that was published, that was written about publicly in scholarly articles, and people thought this was okay. The first published report was in 1936, and papers were later written every four to six years or so, until 1970. And strikingly, there was never a protest within the medical community about reports on this type of study that appeared in medical journals for forty years.

In 1969, a committee of the Centers for Disease Control determined that the study should continue, and this conclusion was backed by local chapters of the American Medical Association.

I think I grew up thinking of racism as something one person did to someone else. Racist described an individual, some redneck in a pickup truck, a cop car or, worst-case scenario, judge’s robes. It’s only in my 20s that I realized that the history of racism in America isn’t a bunch of bad apples, it’s the whole tree.

2 Comments

Filed under America, Personal, Serious

2 responses to “Three Things I Didn’t Know About The Tuskegee Experiment

  1. Horrific…it’s like a tale from Nazi Germany, but the medics and health officials couldn’t see any such parallel. You wonder if they had ever taken the hippocratic oath, or had any clue what it meant.

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