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Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

: Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted an
experiment on 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis.
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Category:
History
Paper Title:
Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment
Text:
Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted an
experiment on 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis. These men, for
the most part
illiterate sharecroppers from one of the poorest counties in Alabama, were
never told what
disease they were suffering from or of its seriousness. Informed that they
were being
treated for bad blood, their doctors had no intention of curing them of
syphilis at all.

The data for the experiment was to be collected from autopsies of the men,
and they were
thus deliberately left to degenerate under the ravages of tertiary syphiliswhich
can
include tumors, heart disease, paralysis, blindness, insanity, and death. One
of the doctors
involved said: we have no further interest in these patients until they
die.

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The sharecroppers’ easy to manipulate because they were poor and liked the
idea of
free medical care, said James Jones. He also said they were pawns in the
longest non-
therapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history.

The study was to compare blacks and whites reaction to syphilis, thinking
that whites
experienced more neurological complications from syphilis whereas blacks
would have
more cardiovascular damage. How this knowledge would have changed clinical
treatment
of syphilis is uncertain. It took almost forty years before someone involved
in the study
took a hard and honest look at the end results, concluding that nothing
learned will
prevent, find, or cure a single case of infectious syphilis or bring us
closer to our basic
mission of controlling venereal disease in the United States. When the
media caught a
hold of the experiment in 1972, news anchor Harry Reasoner described it as an
experiment that used human beings as laboratory animals in a long and
inefficient study
of how long it takes syphilis to kill someone.

By the end of the experiment, 28 of the men had died directly of syphilis,
100 were
dead of complications of the disease, 40 of their wives had been infected,
and 19 of their
children had congenital syphilis. To get the community to support the
experiment, one of
the original doctors admitted it was necessary to carry on this study
under the guise of a
demonstration and provide treatment. At first, the men were prescribed syphilis
remedies of the day, bismuth, neoarsphenamine, and mercury, but in such
small amounts
that only 3 percent showed any improvement. These token doses of medicine
were good
public relations and did not interfere with the true aims of the study.

Eventually, all
syphilis treatment was replaced with pink medicine aspirin. To ensure
that the men
would show up for a painful and potentially dangerous spinal tap, the PHS
doctors
misled them with a letter full of promotional hype: Last Chance for
Special Free
Treatment. The fact that autopsies would eventually be required was also
concealed. A
doctor explained, If the colored population becomes aware that accepting
free hospital
care means a post-mortem, every darky will leave Macon County . . . Even
the Surgeon
General of the United States participated in enticing the men to remain in
the experiment,
sending them certificates of appreciation after 25 years in the study.

Believe it or not, not only white people took part in the experiment, black
people
were also involved. The experiment’s name comes from the Tuskegee Institute,
the black
university founded by Booker T. Washington. Its affiliated hospital lent the
PHS its
medical facilities for the study, and other predominantly black institutions
as well as local
black doctors also participated. Eunice Rivers, a black nurse, played a huge
part in the
experiment for 40 years. A lot of them did it for the promise of great
recognition. A
Tuskegee doctor, for example, praised the educational advantages offered
our interns
and nurses as well as the added standing it will give the hospital. Nurse
Rivers said her
role as one of passive obedience: we were taught that we never
diagnosed, we never
prescribed; we followed the doctor’s instructions! It is clear that the
men in the
experiment trusted her and that she sincerely cared about their well-being,
but not
enough. Even after the experiment was exposed to public scrutiny, she
pretty much felt
nothing ethical was wrong.

One of the scariest aspects of the experiment was how strongly the PHS kept
these
men from receiving treatment. When several nationwide campaigns to erase
venereal
disease came to Macon County, the men were prevented from participating. Even
when
penicillin was discovered in the 1940sthe first real cure for syphilisthe
Tuskegee
men were deliberately denied the medication. During World War II, 250 of the
men
registered for the draft and were consequently ordered to get treatment for
syphilis, only
to have the PHS exempt them. Pleased at their success, the PHS representative
stated: So
far, we are keeping the known positive patients from getting treatment.

The experiment
continued in spite of the Henderson Act (1943), a public health law requiring
testing and
treatment for venereal disease, and in spite of the World Health
Organization’s
Declaration of Helsinki (1964), which specified that informed consent
was needed for
experiment involving human beings.

The story finally got into the Washington Star on July 25, 1972, in an
article by
Jean Heller of the Associated Press. Her source was Peter Buxtun, a former
PHS venereal
disease interviewer and one of the few whistle blowers over the years.

The PHS,
however, remained unmoved, claiming the men had been volunteers and were
always
happy to see the doctors, and an Alabama state health officer who had been
involved
claimed somebody is trying to make a mountain out of a molehill.

Finally because of the publicity, the government ended their experiment, and
for
the first time provided the men with effective medical treatment for
syphilis. Fred Gray, a
lawyer who had previously defended Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, filed a
class
action suit that provided a $10 million out-of-court settlement for the men
and their
families.

The PHS did not accept the media’s comparison of Tuskegee with the appalling
experiments performed by Nazi doctors on their Jewish victims during World
War II. Yet
in addition to the medical and racist parallels, the PHS offered the same morally
bankrupt defense offered at the Nuremberg trials: they claimed they were
just carrying
out orders, mere cogs in the wheel of the PHS bureaucracy, exempt from
personal
responsibility.

The study’s other justificationfor the greater good of scienceis
equally stupid.

Now my in opinion, Clinton said it best when he said: The United States
government did
something that was wrongdeeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an
outrage to our
commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens. . . . clearly
racist. May 16,
1997.


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