Tuskegee Syphilis experiments | Untold History #9

The coronavirus is still on, it’s depressing, no universities, no schools, no vacations, no trips, and this will continue for a long time, till at least we have a vaccine. Now, imagine if coronavirus just ran through the world uncured, and after sometime, scientists pick up a community of African Americans and inject them with coronavirus in the promise of free medical care. That wouldn’t be the first time it happened. For 40 years, the U.S. government doctors behind the Tuskegee experiment tricked African-American men with syphilis into thinking they were getting free treatment, but gave them no treatment at all.

In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, the U.S. government appeared to be giving away free healthcare to the African-American sharecroppers in Macon County, Alabama. There was a serious syphilis outbreak in this area of the country at the time and it appeared as though the government was helping to fight it. However, it eventually came to light that the doctors let 622 men believe they were getting free healthcare and treatment. Instead, the purpose of the Tuskegee experiment was to observe untreated black patients as syphilis ravaged their bodies.

A group of subjects unaware of the reality behind their “medical care”
Image source: allthatsinteresting

The participants were primarily sharecroppers, and many had never before visited a doctor. Doctors from the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), which was running the study, informed the participants — 399 men with latent syphilis and a control group of 201 others who were free of the disease — they were being treated for bad blood, a term commonly used in the area at the time to refer to a variety of ailments. The true nature of the experiment had to be kept from the subjects to ensure their cooperation. The sharecroppers’ grossly disadvantaged lot in life made them easy to manipulate. Pleased at the prospect of free medical care — almost none of them had ever seen a doctor before — these unsophisticated and trusting men became the pawns in what James Jones, author of the excellent history on the subject, Bad Blood (not to be confused with Taylor Swift’s song Bad Blood – Although, I feel sured that you might end up searching for the song instead of the book after you read the blog), identified as “the longest non-therapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history.” The study was meant to discover how syphilis affected blacks as opposed to whites — the theory being that whites experienced more neurological complications from syphilis whereas blacks were more susceptible to cardiovascular damage. By the time the bombshell report came out, seven men involved had died of syphilis and more than 150 of heart failure that may or may not have been linked to syphilis. Seventy-four participants were still alive, but the government health officials who started the study had already retired. And, because of the study’s length and the way treatment options had evolved in the intervening years, it was hard to pin the blame on an individual, but it was most definitely sickening.

Originally, the study’s directive was to observe the effects of untreated syphilis in African-American men for six to eight months — followed by a treatment phase. But as the plans were being finalised, the Tuskegee experiment lost most of its funding. The challenges of the Great Depression caused one of the funding companies to back out of the project. This meant the researchers could no longer afford to give treatment to the patients. However, the Tuskegee doctors didn’t cancel the project — they adjusted it. The study now had a new purpose: to see what happened to a man’s body if he didn’t get any treatment for syphilis at all; curiosity killed the cat morals.

A Tuskegee patient being experimented on.
Image source: National Archive

The researchers thus observed the men who had syphilis until they died, lying to them about their condition to keep them from getting treatment anywhere else. They watched as their bodies slowly degraded and they died in agony. One of the ways the people were lured into being test subjects was thanks to an African-American nurse named Eunice Rivers, the reason mentioning race is important here is because the lawyer who later in the years filed a class action lawsuit providing out-of-case settlement of $10 Million for the subjects (mostly men) and their families, named only whites and white organisations in the suit, portraying Tuskegee as a black and white case when it was in fact more complex than that; black doctors and institutions had been involved from beginning to end. Her patients called the observation building “Mrs. River’s Lodge” and regarded her as a trusted friend. She was the only staff member to stay with the experiment for the full 40 years. Rivers was fully aware that her patients weren’t being treated. But as a young, black nurse given a major role in a government-funded project, she felt she couldn’t turn it down. “I was just interested. I mean I wanted to get into everything that I possibly could”, she recalled. Rivers even justified the study after it went public in 1972, telling an interviewer, “Syphilis had done its damage with most of the people.” She also mentioned that the research provided value, saying “The study was proven that syphilis did not affect the Negro as it did the white man,” she kind of reminds me of Stephen from Django Unchained. The story about the experiments would’ve never become public if it wasn’t for a Whistle blower Peter Buxton, a former PHS venereal disease interviewer. The story was published in Washington Star on July 25, 1972. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both have publicly apologised for the state sponsored experiments. Whistle blowers have great courage, they put lives on the line for the convictions of morality that guide them, but unfortunately not all of them survive suicide, just like when Gary Webb committed suicide by shooting two bullets in his own head. Regardless, we continue to suffer from the things that go on behind the scenes, it’s foolish to assume, that nothing of that sort goes on today, secrecy in during the times of global transparency is all about hiding the truth in plain sight.

Bibliography

  • https://www.history.com/news/the-infamous-40-year-tuskegee-study
  • https://time.com/4867267/tuskegee-syphilis-study/
  • https://www.infoplease.com/history/black-history/the-tuskegee-syphilis-experiment
  • https://allthatsinteresting.com/tuskegee-experiment-syphilis-study
  • https://rense.com/general60/move.htm

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