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It’s been 50 years since the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment on Black men was exposed by the Associated Press.
Between 1932 and 1972, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Public Health Service injected 400 African-American men with syphilis to study its untreated effects on the human body. This was done in collaboration with the University of Tuskegee, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) founded by Booker T. Washington.
The men were unknowingly injected with the disease, and more than 100 died. 399 men had latent or no symptoms of syphilis. 201 men were in the control group and were thus not infected.
Taliaferro Clark, who was head of the US Public Health Services department in 1932, allocated government funding to the horrid and racist study. His goal was to study the varying effects of the disease between Black and White men, using a previous study of the untreated effects in White people from Oslo, Norway.
However, a key difference between the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and Oslo was: The White participants in Oslo, Norway, were isolated from their community to prevent spread, while the Black men in and around Tuskegee were recklessly sent home to their wives and communities – unknowingly carrying a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease.
Insidiously, Raymond A. Vonderlehr, the appointed on-site director of the research program – who developed the policies that shaped the long-term follow-up section of the project, recruited Eunice Rivers, a Black woman, as the key point of contact, linking the Black community to the horrible experiment. Using his influence, Vonderlehr convinced Black doctors not to treat Black men who sought treatment for syphilis who were in the program.
Vonderlehr left his position as on-site director of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment shortly after penicillin was proven as a treatment that cures syphilis. The irony is he later became the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1947 to 1951.
Furthermore, the government study was endorsed by both Tuskegee Institute’s then president, Robert Russa Moton, and John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital’s head, Eugene Dibble.
When syphilis rates rose sharply, beyond the test experiment, in Macon County, Vonderlehr assured Moton that the rising rates were more closely related to poverty and not the intentional injection of syphilis into 400 Black men in the area.
All Black men were promised free medical care and were initially told the program would only last six months; however, it lasted nearly 40 years, well past Vonderlehr’s rise and time as CDC director.
Those infected or deceived by the US government were never properly treated despite penicillin, a cure for the disease, being widely and easily accessible.
“On July 25, 1972, Gene Heller, a reporter on the Associated Press investigative team, then called the special assignment team, broke the news that rocked the nation,” the AP reports.
A Small Sense of Justice
It would be decades before the United States government took ownership of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.
On May 16, 1997, five Black men who survived the immoral experiment were invited to The White House for a ceremony in their honor: Charlie Pollard, Herman Shaw, Carter Howard, Fred Simmons, and Frederick Moss.
In 1973, Pollard filed a lawsuit against the US government, which resulted in a 10 million dollar settlement.
At the ceremony, then President Bill Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the United States to the survivors and victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and their families, condemning the experiment as “shameful and racist.”
“What was done cannot be undone, but we can end the silence,” the president said, adding, “we can stop turning our heads away, we can look you in the eyes and finally say on behalf of the American people what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”
The last man who was a participant in the study died in 2004.
Lasting Results of Tuskegee Syphilis Study
By the time the story broke nationally, 28 patients had died directly from the disease 100 in total had died from complications relating to the disease 40 of the patients’ wives were also infected, including 19 of their Black children.
According to the CDC in 2018, African Americans were disproportionately affected by syphilis: “4.7 times the rate among whites.”
The syphilis study was a violation of ethical standards and human rights abuse.
Lastly, public health trust efforts in the United States have been damaged by the revelations of mistreatment under the US Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee.