The notoriety of the Tuskegee syphilis study is unparalleled in the field of bioethics. Last week marked the 42nd anniversary of the horrific experiment’s termination, and many people took the opportunity to recall Tuskegee and examine its relevance to the treatment of human research subjects today.
Half a century ago, what the US Public Health Service did in Tuskegee was considered acceptable medical practice. Its researchers willingly endangered the lives of hundreds of African American men in rural Alabama, leading them to believe that they were being treated for “bad blood.” They could have been treated for the syphilis they actually had, since penicillin had become an available treatment by then.
But in the name of improving scientific understanding of the disease, all relevant information and treatment were purposefully kept from them. They were unknowing participants in a 40-year-long medical study to test the natural progression of syphilis and the full extent of its toll on black bodies.
Wives and children of the men contracted the disease, and numerous people died, but it was not until there was a leak to the press in 1972 that the study finally came to an end.
According to Alexander Cockburn in Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press, “the lead researchers remained unapologetic.” Dr. John Heller, the Director of the Public Health Service’s Division of Venereal Diseases, said, “For the most part, doctors and civil servants simply did their job. Some merely followed orders, others worked for the glory of science.”
Anyone familiar with the twentieth century’s record of other medical experimentation horrors will recognize this sentiment.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.