The Tuskegee Experiment

The Tuskegee Experiment The Tuskegee Experiment In 1932, in the area surrounding Tuskegee, Macon County, Alabama, the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and the Rosenwald Foundation began a survey and small treatment program for African-Americans with syphilis. Within a few months, the deepening depression, the lack of funds from the foundation, and the large number of untreated cases provied the governments reseachers with what seemed to be an unprecedented opportunity to study a seemingly almost natural experimentation of lantent syphilis in African-American men. What had begun as a treatment program thus was converted by the PHS reasearchers, under the imprimatur of the Surgeon General and with knowledge and consent of the Prewsident of Tuskegee Institute, the medical director of the Institutes John A. Andrew Hospital, and the Macon County public health officials, into a persecpective study-The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (Jones1-15). Moreover, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which began in 1932 and was terminated in 1972 by the protest of an enraged public, constituted the longest nontherapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history.

Since the premise on which the experiment was based did not involve finding a cure or providing treatment, the question then remains why did the study begin and why was it continued for four decades? In Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphhilis Experiment, James Jones describes the fate of the 600 Black victims. Ultimately, 399 men, who were in the late or tertiary stages of syphilis, participated in the experiment. In addition, 201 men who were free of the disease were in cluded in the study. Both groups of men were neither told the truth about their ailment or lack thereof, nor were they informed that they were part of a medical study. Medical personnel assured the subjects that they were suffering from bad blood, a euphemism that in the local parlance, reffered to many ailments. None of the men knew that the bad blood which coursed through their veins was contagious. None understood how the disease was transmitted; no one explained to them that congenital syphilis was passed on from female to fetus. It was an experiment based on deception, a characteristic that it retained for the next forty years.

Through a historical analysis of the experiment several questions arise, particularly the issues of the mens participation in the experiment and the black professionals who witnessed the study. Why did these Black men take part in this study? Why did the Black healtth professionals not challenge the study? The answers to these questions are interconnected and lies captive in a term Jones calls racial medicine (Jones 15). Prior to 1932 information concering the origin, conception, developement, and the complications of untreated syphilis was known to medical science. The one element left to be known about this diease was a cure. By this time, scientist were well aware of the fact that syphilis was a highly contagious diease caused by treponema pallidum, a microscopic organism resembling a corkscrew.

The disease may be acquired, meaning passed from person-to-person either during sexual intercourse or mixing of bodily fluids, or congenital meaning obtained through birth. The disease progresses in three stages: primary, secondary, and tertiary. The characteristics for the first two stages exhibit chancre sores, various mild rashes, bone and joint pain, as well as cardiac palpitations. Following the secondary stage is a period of latency where all symptoms associated with syphilis disappear, a period that may last from a few weeks to thirty years. At this time, delusion of health is shattered and the symptoms revisit with a harsher intensity.

It is at the tertiary stage that the majority of the damage is done. Tumors begin to coalesce on the skin forming huge ulcers covered with a crust of dried exuded matter. Bones are attacked by tumors and in some cases eaten entirely away. The tumors also attack the walls of the heart or blood vessels causing aneurysms, balloon like sacs filled with blood. If the aneurysm burst, death is instantaneous.

Syphilis can attack the brain in a condition known as paresis, in which the brain softens and produces paralyis and insanity. Optic nerves can be attacked causing blindness or inflicting deafness (Jones 2-4). The progression of th de disease in each stage had been known prior to 1932, the year the Tuskegee experiment began (Jones 2-4). In fact a similar study that observed the effect of untreated syphilis in man took place some forty years before Tuskegee in an experiment that took place in Olso, Norway (Jones 10). It is from this first study that much of the knowledge known about untreated syphilis previous to Tuskegee was uncovered.

The difference, however, is that the men in Olso went untreated because there was no known treatment and in the case of Tuskegee treatment was deliberately withheld. In fact the discovery of the Salvaran treatment for syphilitic patients prompted the end to the Olso study in 1910. Racial differences create a plethora of opportunities through which a people can be labeled inferior. Jones explains that physicians and scientist have always been fascinated by the large number of ways in which blacks appeared to be different (Jones 16). Thus, the question Jones presents of racial medicine becomes a more contingent issue for why the experiment began and continued for decades.

Preceding this fascination or preoccupation with establishing differences between the races is a reason, one that Jones describes as: There was a compelling reason for this prepccupation with establishing physical and mental distinctions between the races, one that transcended the disinterested pursuit of empirical facts. Most physicians who wrote about blacks during the nineteenth century were southerns who believed in the existing social order. They justified slavery, and after its abolition, second-class citizenship by insisting that blacks ere incapable of assuming any higher station in different unquestionably meant inferior. Thus, medical discourses on the peculiarities of blacks offered, among other things, a psudoscientific rationale for keeping blacks in their places (Jones 17). Jones discusses the racial attitudes that help to sustain this study.

White physicians and scientist shared in the prevalent racism that saturated the United States especialy the South. Many of the white physicians involved were convinced that syphilis was a black disease and that it was more prevaleent among blacks then whites. Jones concludes, whether by accident or design, physicians had come dangerously close to dipicting the syphilitic black as the represenative black (Jones 28). To deny that race played a role in the Tuskegee study is naive. All 600 subjects (399 experimantals and 201 controls) were Black.

The officials in charge of the study failed to obtain informed consent from the subjects in a study of a disease with known risk to human life. little respect was shown to the subjects. The reseachers were not compelled to explain to the men whatexactly was occurring to them. The reasearchers were evidently never troubled by any ethical questions raised by the study of this nature. Denying the men salvarsan or mercury in the 1930s, current treatments for syphilis during this time, or penicillin after is was discovered and identified as a cure for syphilis in the 1940s.

By failing to obtain informed consent and offering incentives for participation, it is quite obvious that the PHS doctors were performing unethical annd immoral experiment on human subjects. From the moment the ex …