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Tuskegee Syphilis Study

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The Tuskegee Syphilis Study or, to give it its full name, the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, was a notorious clinical study that has become a byword for racist and unethical medical experimentation. It ran from 1932 to 1972 and involved nearly 400 impoverished and poorly educated African-American men diagnosed with latent syphilis - meaning that they had the infection but showed no obvious symptoms at that stage. For 40 years they were never told they had syphilis and were never treated for it, even when penicillin became a standard cure in 1947. They were simply told they had ‘bad blood’. Among the aims of the study was to see whether syphilis affected black men differently from white men.

For participating in the study, the men received free rides to and from the clinic at Tuskegee University, Alabama. There they were given hot meals and free medical treatment for minor ailments. Any treatments they thought they were also getting for their ‘bad blood’ were actually placebos, aspirin or mineral supplements. Medical staff allowed nothing to interfere with their work. Even when 250 of the men were drafted for service in the Second World War, strings were pulled to ensure that they remained part of the study instead.

When the study ended in 1972 following a public outcry, only 74 of the original participants were still alive. Twenty-eight men had died of the disease and a further hundred or so of related complications. Forty wives had been infected and 19 children had been born with congenital syphilis. Survivors eventually received financial compensation and in 1997 US President Bill Clinton was moved to declare that ‘on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful’.

 

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Bibliography

J H Jones, Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (New York: Free Press, 1981)

H A Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (London: Doubleday, 2007)

Glossary:

Syphilis

A sexually transmitted infection resulting in the formation of lesions throughout the body.