The Tuskegee Experiments

Bad Blood

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 17

In 1932, the United States Public Health Service (USPHS), working with the Tuskegee Institute, began a study titled the 'Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male'.

600 African American men from Macon Country, Alabama, were enlisted to partake, with the study’s goal to 'observe the natural history of untreated syphilis' in black populations.

This goal was not communicated to the patients who were told that they were receiving treatment for 'bad blood' - bad blood being a colloquial term referring to a host of conditions ranging from fatigue to anaemia to a range of blood-borne diseases.

These patients were generally poor and were incentivised into participating in the study with false promises of free healthcare and government-mandated checkups.

Herman Shaw, a farmer who was a victim of this government-funded experiment, recounts hearing about the study as a kind of healthcare programme:

“People said you could get free medicine for yourself and things of that kind…”

Charles Pollard, another victim, recalls how he heard that men were receiving free physicals at a local school:

“I went over and they told me I had bad blood…”

Patients were subjected to blood tests, spinal taps, x-rays, physical examinations, and when they died, autopsies, all without knowing the true reason for these invasive procedures.

In an effort to keep participation high, the USPHS organised transport to and from appointments, provided hot meals to patients and covered funeral expenses to ensure access to bodies for their autopsies.

When penicillin became widely available by the early 1950s as the preferred treatment for syphilis, these men were not offered therapy. In fact, on several occasions, the USPHS actively sought to prevent treatment.

In 1969, the federally operated Center for Disease Control (CDC) decided that the experiment should be continued. Despite the 1947 Nuremberg Code and the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki, two regulations designed to protect humans from experimentation.

Things came to a head in 1972 when a whistleblower leaked information about the study to the New York Times. A front-page exposé on 16 November finally brought the experiments to a halt.

By this time, only 74 test subjects were still alive, with 128 people dying directly from advanced syphilis and its complications. 40 of the victims’ wives had been infected, and 19 of their children had acquired congenital syphilis.

The fallout from this 40-year experiment included government meetings and reports, a class-action lawsuit and the reduction of the life expectancy of black men by 1.4 years.

The experiments are also thought to have increased mistrust within segments of the black community for doctors and other medical professionals. Although the prevalence of the pseudoscience of ‘scientific racism’ in America is another contributor to this mistrust - we will discuss this in a future edition.

Whilst the horrors of the Tuskegee experiments are attributed to faceless organisations and bureaucratic oversight, the reality of the situation is that numerous men and women sanctioned and sustained the experiment. Although apologies have been offered, to this day, no one has been prosecuted for their role in dooming hundreds of men to syphilis.