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What Was the Tuskegee Experiment?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Tuskegee Experiment was a notorious medical experiment carried out in the United States between 1932 and 1972, in which almost 400 black Americans with syphilis were offered no medical treatment, allowing researchers to see the course of the disease. The events of the Tuskegee Experiment triggered extensive ethics legislation, including the National Research Act, and the experiment attracted a great deal of public attention. Many people regard the Tuskegee Experiment as an extremely shameful event in American history, and several organizations including the Centers for Disease Control have extensive archives on the experiment which are available to interested members of the public who want to learn more about it.

There were so many problems with the Tuskegee Experiment that it is difficult to even begin to list them. The architects of the experiment claimed that they were performing valuable research on the disease, but even at the time, many people doubted this, especially after 1947, when penicillin treatment for syphilis became available. The primary value of the study subjects to the researchers from the United States Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute was as autopsy subjects, as they claimed that they were going to prove that untreated syphilis caused extensive cardiac damage in blacks.

The research subjects were extremely poor black sharecroppers from rural Alabama. The study lacked even the rudiments of informed consent, with participants being told that they were receiving treatment for “bad blood.” Over the course of the study, the men were periodically called in to receive “treatments” which were actually medical tests used to gauge the severity of their conditions, and the progress of the syphilis was documented by the research team. The men were offered no treatment, and were in fact deliberately denied available syphilis treatments, an action which runs contrary to the most fundamental of medical ethics.

Over the course of the study, 40 wives were infected with syphilis, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis. A number of the men died incredibly painful and prolonged deaths as a result of untreated syphilis, and some of the researchers on the program began to doubt its merits. Several whistleblowers independently wrote concerned letters, but the study did not really begin to attract scrutiny until 1972, when a reporter named Jean Heller broke the story in the Washington Star.

When Americans learned that black men had been allowed to suffer from advanced syphilis without treatment, the public outcry led to a cancellation of the study, along with the prompt passage of several laws designed to spell out fundamental medical ethics which all experiments in the future would be expected to observe. In 1973, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won a nine million dollar lawsuit, using the proceeds to fund medical care for the victims of the experiment. The United States government also agreed to provide lifetime free medical care to the men along with their wives and surviving children.

It was not until 1997 that the federal government issued a formal apology for the Tuskegee Experiment, in the form of an address from President Bill Clinton. The Tuskegee Experiment continues to rankle with many black Americans, who compare it to the medical experiments performed by Nazis in German concentration camps. Not only was the Tuskegee Experiment morally unconscionable, it was also medically pointless, having no practical value whatsoever, and this makes it all the more shameful.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon948090 — On Apr 28, 2014

Weren't the doctor and nurse in charge both black? And I also understand that the patients weren't infected; they already had syphilis. They were lied to and were being told that they were receiving treatment, when in reality they were gathering data as the article says.

What this really shows us is how evil the collective mindset can be, right here in the US. It's a great example of how twisted minds can become when they are thinking, "for the common good." Individual rights and small government are so much safer and saner. It makes me so sad to think of all of these individuals that were treated so horribly! I wonder how far "Common Core" could go? Makes me shudder to think.

By anon281354 — On Jul 23, 2012

My grandfather was a victim of this experiment. There was a nurse who came forth in 1994 whose name was Mary Starke. She was an intern at some point in the years this experiment was conducted. In a written apology, she stated that she in fact was instructed to give syphilis shots to otherwise healthy men and she did. It bothered her conscience in her later years and she felt the need to come forth with this information.

As a granddaughter, it made me feel something I'd pretty much thought throughout the years. Tuskegee is an extremely small historic town. There is no way that kind of wrongdoing could have gone on unnoticed. In those days and now, the church is the staple of the community. Not only did the government kill many righteous, hard-laboring men with a sexually transmitted disease, but many wives were made to bury their husbands never knowing that truth. The money from the settlement did not go to help the families. Only certain survivors received $15k period.

The lawyer, Fred Gray, the same lawyer who defended Rosa Parks, won the case and took the bulk of the money for himself. His office in Tuskegee was burned and all names and records of deceased are nowhere to be found. The only records are now displayed in medical journals online. It was once revealed that a quilt displaying their names was made by a women's group in Canada over 10 years ago. I have searched but could find no more info.

By anon126239 — On Nov 12, 2010

isn't this the true character of the racist mentality presently displayed by bigots who

are unfortunately in the position to do whatever they can to destroy our people? what do you think

someone like Sarah Palin would like to do to us?

By anon121768 — On Oct 25, 2010

My grandfather was a part of this. he was never treated for his syphilis.

By anon56661 — On Dec 16, 2009

This is awful. Who was that.

By sylvan — On Jun 18, 2009

What's also scary is that proponents of dubious alternative cancer cures like "vitamin" B17 and Rife machines and other quackery are calling out for more data on the natural course of untreated cancer. This presumably in order to confirm their belief that chemotherapy and other current medical interventions for cancer are bunk. Could someone please direct them towards this article? History will teach us nothing, it seems...

By birgu — On Jun 13, 2009

Really awful to read on such a medical experiment on human beings. How could this be? Shame on the medical team involved and the government of the day.

By Flywheel1 — On Jun 13, 2009

It is astounding to me that the diabolical Tuskegee Experiment didn't attract any real attention until 1972.

By dudla — On Jun 04, 2008

I recently heard that the US government actually infected black Americans with syphilis. Thanks for the clarification that the government refused medical treatment to those infected with the disease. It's still unsettling, but thanks for the clarity.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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