Why the Tuskegee Experiment Should Never be Forgotten

A scientific study on syphilis, known as the infamous Tuskegee Experiment lasted for more than 30 years. Today, even taking into account the social circumstances in which it was carried out, it's astounding that it was permitted to be conducted.
Why the Tuskegee Experiment Should Never be Forgotten
Cristina Roda Rivera

Written and verified by the psychologist Cristina Roda Rivera.

Last update: 24 April, 2024

The Tuskegee experiment in Macon Country, Alabama has been described as an egregious case of racism in science. Indeed, this study acted as an exposé on the North American scientific community. It also caused the revision and strengthening of the ethical standards of the time.

The Tuskegee inquiry consisted of analyzing the evolution of syphilis in black men of low socioeconomic status. The researchers obtained the blood samples under the health authority’s slogan of improving ‘bad blood’ and promoting good health.

However, the real goal of the research wasn’t to improve the health of the participants. Its aim was to confirm a series of racist prejudices about the health of the African-American population, with special emphasis on their lack of care and promiscuity. In fact, when treatment for syphilis was finally found, the participants weren’t provided with the medication.

The Tuskegee experiment

In 1932, six hundred African-American men from Macon County, Alabama enlisted to participate in a scientific experiment on syphilis. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male was developed by the United States Public Health Service. It included blood tests, x-rays, spinal taps, and autopsies of any subjects who died.

The aim was to “observe the natural history of untreated syphilis” in black populations. But, the participants were unaware of this. They thought they were being given medicine for ‘ bad blood’. Yet, they didn’t actually receive any treatment. Even after penicillin was discovered as a safe and reliable cure for syphilis, most of them had no access to it.

Understanding America of the time

During and after the Civil War in the US, the idea that African Americans represented a different species from white Americans was shared by a good part of the population. Similarly, they believed that mixed-race children were prone to many medical problems.

Moreover, many members of the scientific community claimed that the brains of African-Americans were underdeveloped. They suggested that proof of this claim was that their genitals were overdeveloped. Furthermore, they claimed that black men had an intrinsic perversion for white women and the tendency to be immoral, with an insatiable sexual appetite.

This is important because it was from these biases regarding race, sexuality, and health that researchers conducted the Tuskegee experiment. They considered black people to be extremely predisposed to sexually transmitted infections. In reality, low birth rates and high miscarriage rates are universally attributed to sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Justification of the Tuskegee Experiment

Medical authorities assumed that all black people, regardless of education, background, financial, or personal status, couldn’t be convinced to receive treatment for syphilis. This justified the purpose of the experiment. It was simply a matter of observing the natural progression of syphilis within a community that wouldn’t seek treatment.

The United States Public Health Service established the study in Macon County due to the high rates of contagion in the town. There was talk of 35 percent of the population being affected. In 1932, the first patients between the ages of 25 and 60 were recruited under the guise of receiving free medical care for ‘bad blood’.

‘Bad blood’ was a colloquial term that encompassed anemia, syphilis, fatigue, and other conditions. The researchers conducted physical examinations, X-rays, spinal taps, and, if participants died, autopsies.

Patient in medical consultation
Specialists assumed that due to a lack of education, Afro-descendants wouldn’t be convinced to receive medication for STIs.

Racist cruelty

Several times throughout the experiment, the researchers actively intervened to ensure that their subjects didn’t obtain syphilis treatment. For example, in 1934, they provided Macon County doctors with lists of their subjects and asked them not to treat them. In 1940, they did the same with the Alabama Department of Health.

The true nature of the Tuskegee experiment

The real nature of the Tuskegee study was, instead of simply observing and documenting the progression of syphilis in the community, as was originally planned, to allow specialists to intervene.

They told the participants that they were being treated (a lie). This meant they were prevented from seeking medication that could save their lives. In fact, they proved the original hypothesis which was that the people of Macon County would probably not seek treatment. Consequently, their syphilis would progress. As such, the study became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Discovery of penicillin

In 1947, penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis. This prompted the United States Public Health Service to open several rapid treatment centers to counteract the disease with this antibiotic. But, at the same time, they were actively preventing 399 men from getting the drug.

The North American institution argued that its participants wouldn’t seek penicillin or adhere to prescribed treatment plans. They claimed that the sample, all black men, was too conservative to visit a doctor. However, these people believed that they were being cared for, so why should they ask for another treatment?

In 1965, the researchers suggested it was too late to give the subjects penicillin. They claimed that their syphilis had progressed too far and the drug wouldn’t help them. Nevertheless, penicillin is recommended at all stages of the infection, so it could’ve stopped the advance of the disease.

In 1947, scientists developed the Nuremberg Code. Later, in 1964, the World Health Organization published The Declaration of Helsinki. Both were intended to protect humans from experimentation. But, despite this fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided to continue the Tuskegee study until 1969.

syphilis treatment
Although penicillin was the indicated treatment against STIs, the researchers never administered it to the participants.

The end of the Tuskegee experiment and the start of the accusations

The experiment didn’t end until Peter Buxtun leaked information to the New York Times. This started a debate. In fact, the story was featured on the front page of the newspaper on November 16, 1972.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit against the United States Public Health Service. It was resolved two years later in the sum of ten million dollars. It was agreed that medical treatment would be provided for all surviving participants and infected family members. The last victim died in 2009.

As a response to the events in Macon Country, in 1974, Congress passed the National Research Act. In addition, the Office of Human Research Protection was established to oversee clinical trials. Moreover, obtaining informed consent became necessary for all human experimentation. To this day, no one has been prosecuted for their responsibility in the Tuskegee case.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.