Exactly 86 years ago in mid-October 1932, the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” was implemented by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
This inhuman study, which was designed to last for six months, initially included 600 Black men in rural Macon County, 399 with syphilis and 201 without. By the time this wicked experiment ended- 40 years later in 1972- as many as 128 of the 399 had died of syphilitic complications.
But it’s worse than that. Forty wives were infected. And 19 infants were born with congenital syphilis.
And, believe it or not, it’s actually even worse than that. Because penicillin had become available in the military during World War II (1939-1945), induction centers ordered treatment for 250 of those diseased Tuskegee victims who had been drafted. And because it became widely available to civilians in 1947- which was 15 years after the wicked experiment began- everyone in the country with syphilis could be cured immediately. But PHS used its political influence to maliciously block access to treatment for any of the 250 drafted Tuskegee men (as well as obviously any of the other Tuskegee victims).
And as late as 1969, PHS got the prestigious American Medical Association to support this depraved experiment.
By the way, just in case you don’t already know, here’s what that vicious disease did and does- if left untreated- to human beings, regardless of race: It caused and causes blindness. And deafness. And heart disease. And bone deformity. And dental disfigurement. And central nervous system deterioration. And excruciating death that resulted in up to 58 percent of untreated syphilis cases throughout America.
The purpose of the study was to monitor the natural progress of untreated syphilis. In other words, it was to watch Black “lab rats”- I mean Black men, women, and children- suffer and die.
The American Journal of Public Health in 2008 described it as “arguably the most infamous biomedical research study in U.S. history.” And in his book, Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, award-winning author James H. Jones, Ph.D., wrote, “[It’s] the longest non-therapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history.”
The PHS reeled the unknowing Tuskegee victims in by flooding the county with fliers offering “Special Free Treatment” to cure “bad blood,” which was a colloquialism the poverty-stricken and barely literate residents used to describe all types of general ailments they didn’t understand. They were tricked into signing complex medical forms without any informed consent whatsoever. And they received no real benefits whatsoever- with the exception of “free burial insurance.” But they had to unknowingly sign forms agreeing to a specific type of autopsy before that coverage kicked in.
The study’s physicians and laboratory clinicians reasoned that they were not really harming these Black subjects because they were unlikely to get medical treatment anyway due to their destitution and also because they were purportedly too ignorant to reduce their behavior anyway due to their inherent and supposed excessive sex drive. Can you believe the racist PHS would take that position? Yes. I can.
The major bad guys in this sick and twisted medical conspiracy were Taliafero Clark and Thomas Parran Jr.
Clark, a member of the PHS’s Venereal Disease Division (VDD) who founded the study committee in 1932 at the national headquarters in Washington, D.C., said he conceived of a program that would observe but not treat cases of syphilis “in a group of Black men for six-to-nine months.”
As slimy as Clark was, Parran was slimier. While the former was the envisioner, the latter was the implementer. As the New York Health Commissioner and ex-head of the VDD, he personally selected Black, southern, impoverished, unschooled Macon County residents, proclaiming, “If one wished to study the natural history of syphilis in the Negro race ‘uninfluenced’ by treatment, this county would be an ideal location for such a study.”
As barbarically racist as this entire four-decade episode was, it wasn’t just hateful white devils who made it happen. It was also traitorous Black demons who participated. Dr. Eugene Dibble Jr., chief of the John Andrew Hospital at Tuskegee Institute, Dr. Robert Moton, president of Tuskegee Institute, and Eunice Rivers, the supervising nurse who trained at Tuskegee Institute and worked at its John Andrew Hospital, were the wealthy educated Black faces on white “supremacy” who were paid and rewarded to fool the poor uneducated Black victims into trusting the process.
If it hadn’t been for Peter Buxtun, a white 27-year-old epidemiologist and social worker hired by PHS in 1965 to interview patients with sexually transmitted diseases, no one would have ever known about this horror. A year after he was employed there, he filed an internal complaint on ethical grounds. When that complaint was denied, he refiled in 1968.
And when that one was rejected, he leaked the story to Jenn Heller, a white 23-year-old reporter at The Washington Star. Her article, a front page story published in 1972, was so explosive that the New York Times republished it the next day.
As a result of the widespread public outcry and outrage, the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” which started in mid-October 1932, ended in November 1972.
The last male victim died in 2004. The last widow victim died in 2009. Twelve adult offspring are still alive and receiving constant medical treatment.
A class action lawsuit, filed in 1973 by the ever-vigilant NAACP, resulted in a $10 million settlement, which is worth about $50 million in 2018 dollars. But that’s not enough. Not nearly enough. How much are blindness, deafness, heart disease, bone deformity, dental disfigurement, central nervous system deterioration, excruciating death, and hellish racism worth? I’m not sure. But I am sure that whatever it is, it must be part of a full health, education, housing, business start-ups, and land reparations package for all Black folks in America.
Before October ends, you should stop, pause, and think about those 600 total- including those 399 men and those 201 men, as well as those 40 widows, those 19 infants, and especially those 128 men who were the first to die.
Never forget. Always avenge.