At Tuskegee, U.S. experimented on black men with syphilis for 40 years

Officially called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” the federal government oversaw an experiment in which about 400 black men with syphilis were deliberately left untreated so doctors could study the disease.

AJC Sepia Black History Month

On May 16, 1997, five elderly African-American men attended an extraordinary White House ceremony. Then-President Bill Clinton looked each of them in the eye and said on behalf of the nation: “I am sorry.”

Clinton was apologizing for one of the most horrific chapters of American history, the infamous “Tuskegee Experiment.”

Officially called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” the federal government oversaw an experiment in which about 400 African-American men in the Alabama community with syphilis were deliberately left untreated so doctors could study the disease. The study began in 1932 and continued for 40 years until an Associated Press article exposed it and federal officials created a panel to investigate.

Many of the men died of the disease or its complications. Some of their wives and babies were infected.

Participants in the Tuskegee syphilis study (National Archives)
Participants in the Tuskegee syphilis study (National Archives)

The experiment added to the deep distrust many African-Americans have toward the federal government and its medical research that lingers to this day. The rap artist C.L. Smooth referenced the experiment in a 1992 song. A 1997 HBO film “Miss Evers’ Boys” told the story of the study. It was mentioned during a 2015 episode of the sitcom “Blackish.” A December 2017 Pew poll found just 15 percent of blacks trust the government in Washington all or most of the time, lower than any other racial group.

The men volunteered for treatment at what was then called the Tuskegee Institute for what was described at the time as “bad blood.” They received free medical exams and free meals. Physicians gave the men aspirin, although penicillin became widely used treatment for syphilis in the mid 1940s. Many doctors involved in the study insisted they were doing well-meaning research. They published 13 articles about Tuskegee in medical journals over the years.

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Some of the physicians involved in Tuskegee also took part in similar experiments in Guatemala, infecting prisoners and mental patients with syphilis in the mid-1940s. In 2010, then-President Barack Obama apologized for the experiments in that nation.

In 1974, the government reached a $10 million settlement with the Tuskegee victims and their families and offered to provide medical benefits. The U.S. government ordered new guidelines to protect human subjects in government-funded research projects.

Clinton announced plans in 1997 to create Tuskegee University’s National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care.

Herman Shaw, a Tuskegee Syphillis Study victim, smiles after receiving an official apology from President Clinton on May 16, 1997. (AP Photo /file)
Herman Shaw, a Tuskegee Syphillis Study victim, smiles after receiving an official apology from President Clinton on May 16, 1997. (AP Photo /file)

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Study participant Herman Shaw, two days shy of 95, spoke at the White House the day Clinton issued the apology.

“We were treated unfairly, to some extent like guinea pigs,” Shaw said.

The last Tuskegee study participant died in January 2004.

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.