Tuskegee Syphilis Study: When Race and Medicine collide



Beginning in 1932 and continuing for another 40 years, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was designed to see the effects of syphilis on black subjects.  For this study, 600 poor, illiterate men from Alabama were enrolled with incentives like free medical examinations, free food on days they were in the hospital and even burial insurance.  These men, however, were never told what the true purpose of the study was.  In fact, this study was to see how the disease played out, from infection till death of the patient.  When penicillin was discovered as a cure for syphilis this information and life saving medication was withheld from them, causing most of the participants to die from their curable illness.  It wasn’t until 1972 that the horrors of the experiments were released to the public and the surviving victims and their families were awarded 10 million dollars and free medical and burial services for survivors, widows and offspring.  This is a clear violation of many fundamental human rights, and a clear example of unethical human experimentation.  The public outcry was one of horror, and became another reason why African Americans feared medical professionals, because there was always the fear that they were not receiving the cures for illnesses they had, rather were part of a secret medical experiment that they were not informed about or consented to.

This situation led to a movie, entitled Ms. Evers’ Boys, that follows a black nurse that helps the white doctors facilitate this experiment and then is called in during the lawsuit to testify, which is shown in the clip above.  This clip shows what happens when medical professionals think that what they are doing is for the greater good.  The nurse thinks that this is experiment was to help both blacks and whites, even saying that the doctors were able to reach a conclusion from these experiments, that blacks and whites had no difference in the course of disease.  The nurse, although she is also black, shapes the experiment as though this is going to be a great help to the black community.

However, it is clear from the records and layout of this experiment that this was not actually the case.  The experiment went on 40 years and many people died, even after a cure for the disease was found.  If this experiment had been for the betterment of the whole community, the cure would have been used to see how the individuals would react.  Instead, the scientists watched the subjects suffer and die because of their own curiosity.  As said in the clip, this type of experimentation would never have happened to whites, as they were being considered the medical norm, rather than the medical anomaly.  The clip ends with the nurse saying that she and the doctors should not be blamed for their actions because it was for the betterment of medicine.  However, like many of the other examples of medical experimentation on subjects, the betterment was only for the white community, who got the benefit and the results of the experiments without having to go through the life ending syphilis experiments that all these African Americans had to go through.

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