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Day 9 of Our 31 Day Series of How Medicine Got It Wrong

The Ethical and Humanitarian Violations of The Tuskegee Experiment

The Tuskegee experiment was a notorious medical study that took place in Tuskegee, Alabama, from 1932 to 1972. The study was conducted by the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) and involved nearly 400 African American men who were infected with syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum.

The experiment began in 1932 when the USPHS, in collaboration with the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college, initiated a study to investigate the natural progression of syphilis in African American men. The participants were recruited from the local community and were told that they were being treated for "bad blood," a vague term that was used to describe a range of ailments.


In reality, the participants were not receiving any treatment for syphilis, and the study was designed to observe the natural progression of the disease over time. The researchers wanted to see what would happen to the men if left untreated, even though penicillin had become the standard treatment for syphilis by the early 1940s.


Over the years, the researchers used various unethical tactics to keep the men in the study, including lying to them about their condition, denying them access to treatment, and even actively discouraging them from seeking medical care elsewhere. Many of the men suffered from severe symptoms of syphilis, including blindness, paralysis, and death.

The experiment continued for four decades, despite growing criticism from within the medical community and protests from civil rights activists. In 1972, the experiment was finally exposed by a whistleblower, and it was shut down by the USPHS.


The Tuskegee experiment is widely regarded as one of history's most egregious violations of medical ethics. It is a tragic reminder of the racism and injustice that have plagued the American healthcare system for centuries.


The discovery of penicillin, which could cure syphilis, occurred in the 1940s. Still, the researchers in the Tuskegee experiment did not offer it to the participants, nor did they tell them that a cure existed. Even when the USPHS issued new treatment guidelines for syphilis in 1943, the researchers ignored them and continued to deny the men access to penicillin.

Many of the participants in the study suffered from severe health problems as a result of their untreated syphilis, and some of them died. In 1973, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the surviving participants and their families, and in 1974, a $10 million settlement was reached.


The Tuskegee experiment officially ended on November 16, 1972, when the USPHS issued a statement announcing the termination of the study. The statement acknowledged that the study had been "ethically unjustified" and expressed regret for the harm that had been caused to the participants. The study has since become a powerful symbol of the need for ethical standards in medical research and a reminder of the ongoing struggle for racial justice in the United States.


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References

  1. Jones, J. H. (1981). Bad blood: The Tuskegee syphilis experiment. New York: Free Press.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). The Tuskegee timeline. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm

  3. Reverby, S. M. (2009). Examining Tuskegee: The infamous syphilis study and its legacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

  4. Brandt, A. M. (1978). Racism and research: The case of the Tuskegee syphilis study. The Hastings Center Report, 8(6), 21-29.

  5. Thomas, S. B., & Quinn, S. C. (1991). The Tuskegee syphilis study, 1932 to 1972: Implications for HIV education and AIDS risk education programs in the black community. American Journal of Public Health, 81(11), 1498-1505.


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