Thirty-five years ago, the covers were pulled off the Tuskegee
syphilis experiment conducted by the Macon County Public Health
Service (PHS). The 40-year experiment allegedly was set up to
study the impact of untreated syphilis on some 600 black men,
about 200 in a control group, beginning in 1932.
Although it certainly wasn’t the first or last of racist experiments
on black people, historian James Jones and author of Bad Blood
has described as "the longest non-therapeutic experiment
on human beings in medical history."
In her book, Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington explores the “dark
history of medical experimentation on black Americans, from colonial
times to the present.” Washington gives numerous examples of
lesser-known experiments on black men, women and children
by men of science and medicine. In most cases, these men went
down in history, decorated and revered for their deadly works.
The notorious Tuskegee “research” was the brainchild of “The
Syphilis Men”: Drs. Taliaferro Clark, Oliver Wenger, John
Heller and Raymond Vonderlehr. They were the liberal minds of
that day, so I can’t imagine what would have happened if the
good doctors had been avowed racists. To avoid the racist label,
the project needed - and received - the support of a black institution
and its prominent doctors. Both Dr. Robert Moton, President of
Tuskegee Institute and Dr. Dibble, head of the John Andrew Hospital
at the Institute, enthusiastically signed off on the reprehensible
project. Dibble proudly anticipated the hospital and the
Institute would “get credit for this piece of research work."
There were other notable African-Americans attached to the project.
Sociologist Charles Johnson did a study of the county’s black
residents, to provide the baseline data for the experiment.
Macon County, Alabama was chosen as the site of the study because
of the high rate of the venereal disease as well as the accompanying
high rates of illiteracy and poverty. When the black men came
to the clinic to be treated and were found to be infected, they
were siphoned off to be part of the infamous study for their “bad
blood”. The goal was never to treat them but to keep them in
the program until death, where their real value would finally
pay off with the data collected from the autopsies.
In return for their participation in the study, the men were
given free medical exams, free meals and free burial insurance.
The word free should definitely be in quotes because there was
nothing free here, as many paid the ultimate price.
The symptoms of syphilis in its advanced, untreated
stages are general ill feelings, muscle aches, joint pain,
enlarged lymph nodes and hair loss. Because the disease affects
the cardiovascular and central nervous systems, the men were
subject to aneurysms, heart disease, blindness, paralysis,
insanity and other debilitating conditions. Even when penicillin
was developed as the accepted cure for syphilis in 1947 and
even when some of the men enlisted to serve in World War II,
treatment was still denied.
Eunice Rivers had a unique role in this shameful project. She
is often portrayed as a helpless pawn or it would be said that
her behavior was justified for the historical period, i.e. a
black nurse did what white doctors told her to do. For me, Nurse
Eunice Rivers was the most despicable player in the game.
Rivers was the only one who stayed the duration of the project,
choosing to continue even after she retired. She was given the
opportunity to take a job in New York City but rejected it, opting
instead to be used by the project. Nurse Rivers carried out the
invaluable role of winning the trust of the men and their families
and keeping them involved through a series of trickery and incentives.
She passed on personal and family information to doctors, along
with black cultural nuances, to exploit as the study saw fit.
She was so trusted that the men would come to her for advice
not related to the study.
Apparently, Missy Rivers starting to get full of herself. The
research project came to be known as “Miss Rivers Lodge.” The
good ole' boys let her sign off on some of their public reports
and she’s even been photographed with the white doctors, appearing
to look like an equal colleague. Rivers pumped these black guinea
pigs up with the notion that they were special because the men
were participating in an important government project. The Tuskegee
subjects would often be seen waving to friends from Miss Rivers’ fancy “guvment” van
on the way to receiving their fake treatment of pink aspirin.
The story finally broke in the Washington Star in 1972,
based upon information from whistleblower, Peter Buxtun, a former
PHS employee. Buxton was a young, Polish immigrant who ended
up doing interviews for the study. Once he found out the real
deal, he started writing letters to the higher-ups in the health
department, pleading for them to stop the project. During his
stint at law school, he continued to write the letters, trying
to get the attention of those in authority, until it was clear
that his words were falling on deaf ears. That’s when he went
to the media.
The wonder of the Tuskegee experiment was that it was not exactly
a secret. While the men, their families and their communities
knew nothing of the contemptible research, many in the medical
field did. There were periodic reports on the study to the broader
medical community. There was never an active intervention by
any of those who read the reports or from those who worked in
the public health sectors of county, state and federal government.
There were also benefactors involved such as the Rosenwald Fund
and Milbank Memorial Fund, who underwrote various aspects of
the project. They should all go down in history as co-conspirators
to commit murder.
By the abrupt end of the experiment in 1972, nearly 30 of the
men had died directly of syphilis, 100 were dead of related complications,
40 of their wives had been infected, and 19 of their children
had been born with congenital syphilis. Ultimately, the study
had no redeeming scientific outcomes that could be used for the
greater good of society.
In 1997, then President Clinton issued a formal apology to the
survivors and their families, yet all the main characters associated
with carrying out the mission of the Tuskegee experiment went
to their graves unrepentant and unremorseful about their participation.
The families of survivors received compensation from a class
action suit filed on their behalf. The physical, psychological
and emotional pain and suffering of the men and the families
who had to watch them deteriorate is incalculable and no dollar
amount is adequate.
In the wake of the Clinton apology, Tuskegee University received
funds for their National Center of Bioethics. I want to believe
that it represents something good coming from evil but thinking
of the profound suffering of the Macon County families, there’s
not much comfort in trying to make such a reconciliation.
The Tuskegee syphilis experiment is an enduring stain on human
medicine. The mistrust of African-Americans toward the medical
industry, as well as the government, remains steadfast and justifiable.
It was no surprise that when AIDS hit the scene, a poll showed
that a sizeable sector of African-Americans believed that the
disease was man-made. Most sadly, it is the poor and uneducated
whose health prognosis is bleaker than their counterparts. It
is that class who sometimes makes a conscious choice not to
go to a doctor or refuses to take medication.
The medical industrial complex has proven that poor folks aren’t
the only ones who should expect to get a raw deal. Their equal
opportunity approach has been duly documented in Michael
Moore’s documentary Sicko. The African-American community
must find ways to address medical accountability, healthcare
inequities and other impediments to achieving a healthy body
For radicals, our revenge or duty -
whichever one motivates you more - is to be models of healthy
lifestyles. Live longer to fight longer. That is a radical
act in a capitalist society.
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board
member Jamala Rogers is the leader of the Organization
for Black Struggle in St. Louis and the Black
Radical Congress National Organizer. Click
here to contact Ms. Rogers.