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

From the archives: This story originally ran on Feb. 8, 2018, as part of AJC Sepia’s Black History Month series. Many African Americans who say they are hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine shot cite a disturbing period of medical research overseen by the federal government for their reluctance: the Tuskegee Experiment.

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% 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.

Explore»MORE: Read the full AJC Sepia Black History Month Series

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 Bill Clinton in 1997. Associated Press
Herman Shaw, a Tuskegee Syphillis Study victim, smiles after receiving an official apology from President Bill Clinton in 1997. Associated Press

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.

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