The Tuskegee Experiments
For four decades, African-American men in Macon County, Alabama, were told by medical researchers that they had ‘bad blood’. The scientists knew that this was a term used by sharecroppers in this part of the country to refer to a wide range of ailments. They knew, therefore, that they wouldn’t question the prognosis. And neither would they raise any concerns or questions when the same researchers gave them injections. Which is how doctors working on behalf of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) were able to look on as hundreds of men went mad, blind or even died as a result of untreated syphilis.
When the experiment began back in 1932, there was no known cure for syphilis. As such, PHS researchers were determined to make a breakthrough. They went to Tuskegee College in Alabama and enlisted their help. Together, they enlisted 622 African-American men, almost all of them very poor. Of these men, 431 had already contracted syphilis prior to 1932, with the remaining 169 free from the disease. The men were told that the experiment would last for just six years, during which time they would be provided with free meals and medical care as doctors observed the development of the disease.
In 1947, penicillin became the recommended treatment for syphilis. Surely the doctors would give this to the men participating in the Tuskegee Experiment? Not so. Even though they knew the men could be cured, the PHR workers only gave them placebos, including aspirin and even combinations of minerals. With their condition untreated, the men slowly succumbed to syphilis. Some went blind, others went insane, and some died within a few years. What’s more, in the years after 1947, 19 syphilitic children were born to men enrolled in the study.
It was only in the mid-1960s that concerns started to be raised about the morality of the experiment. San Francisco-based PHS researcher Peter Buxton learned about what was happening in Alabama and raised his concerns. However, his superiors were unresponsive. As a result, Buxton leaked the story to a journalist friend. The story broke in 1972. Unsurprisingly, the public were outraged. The experiment was halted immediately, and the Congress inquiries began soon after. The surviving participants, as well as the children of those men who had died, were awarded $10 million in an out-of-court settlement. Finally, in 1993, President Bill Clinton offered a formal and official apology on behalf of the U.S. government to everyone affected by the experiment.