“What was done cannot be undone,” were the words spoken by former president Bill Clinton with regard to the dismal reality of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and it’s enduring consequences, inciting distrust to this day.
Lured in by free healthcare, hot meals and rides to and from the clinic, 399 vulnerable Black men became the unwitting participants in the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” Four decades on, the men remained unbeknownst to their syphilis diagnosis and denied available treatment, inevitably resulting in 128 related deaths and an irreparable distrust of the United States Public Health Service.
In September 1932, fliers advertising “Free Treatment, By County Health Department and Government Doctors,” appeared across Macon County, Alabama. Sample collection for an experiment commissioned to observe the natural course of untreated syphilis had begun. To keep the men from withdrawing or seeking alternative treatment, the men remained uninformed of their diagnosis or the withholding of treatment. Instead, they were referred to as having ‘bad blood’, a colloquial term used to describe several diseases including anaemia and made to believe they were receiving treatment for rheumatism or bad stomachs.
While the deception surrounding the experiment was undeniably unethical, studying the development of an incurable disease did not, at this point, impact the mens’ health. However, the horrors of the experiment and perceived worth of the 399 Black men under their care became clear in 1943, when penicillin was found to be an effective treatment for syphilis. This signified a malicious turning point, when existing deception and exploitation manifested into active prevention of access from local treatment programs, denying the men of a cure.
In true American fashion, an admittance of guilt revealed itself through a $10 million out-of-court settlement, in 1974.
Despite the discovery of penicillin 30-years prior, the experiment continued until 1972, by which point only 74 of the original 399 participants were still alive. The study turned researchers into passive spectators assigned to report on the devastating effects of the disease on the body pre- and post-mortem. In true American fashion, an admittance of guilt revealed itself through a $10 million out-of-court settlement, in 1974.
Had the experiment continued as intended, it would have continued until 2004 when Ernest Hendon, the last surviving participant passed away. Symptomatic of a corrupt and racist public health system, the experiment forcibly terminated after whistle-blower Peter Buxton took his concerns to the press, having had formal proceedings disregarded for over five years. The story broke in the Washington Star on July 25, 1972 and became front-page news the following day.
And yet, an apology resembling an ounce of humanity was not received for another 25 years. It was not until 1997, that President Bill Clinton broke cowardly silence, stating, “we can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry”.
The Tuskegee study was not an example of white-collar corruption or embellished military success but resembled the needless inhumanity of the Nazi experiments.
The horrors of the Tuskegee experiment shocked the Black community to such an extent that a 2016 study found that in the years following its termination, the life expectancy of Black men decreased by 1.5 years as a likely result of reduced patient-physician interactions. This historic distrust of the medical field may also be to blame for strong resistance towards a COVID-19 vaccine amongst the Black community, with 44% of Black adults stating that they would not consent to a coronavirus vaccine if one were available.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment came to light amidst an era of distrust and nation-wide malaise. The unearthing of government deceit by whistle-blowers had become common practice, following several exposés on the reality of the Vietnam War as well as the infamous Watergate scandal. Consequently, the Tuskegee study embodied one of the many nails in the coffin of an untrustworthy government, and yet, the severity of what had taken place remained overshadowed.
The Tuskegee study was not an example of white-collar corruption or embellished military success but resembled the needless inhumanity of the Nazi experiments. To most, it represented the crookedness of American politics, but to the Black community, this was a personal tragedy that deeply entrenched mistrust towards the medical field. The quarter-century-long, cold refusal to grant survivors the dignity of an apology exposed the government’s perceived value of their Black community. And in doing so, cemented an enduring distrust of the American Government and medical establishment to this day.
By Molly Rodgers
Illustration: by Hannah Imafidon