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The Impact of the Tuskegee Experiment

by Tyler Williams

(A man receiving treatment in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The National Archives.)

Officially, COVID-19 is more than a year old and some progress has been made to ameliorate the disease. The good news is that the vaccine distribution is widespread around the world and people are getting vaccinated presently. The bad news is that some people are reluctant to take the vaccine because of conspiracy theories, worries of side effects, or traumatic events that happened in the past which is impactful to this day. One of those events is the Tuskegee Experiment of 1932.

In 1932, the United States Public Health Service (PHS) started the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, according to the CDC website. The purpose of this study was to record the natural history of syphilis in hopes of justifying treatment programs for Blacks. It was intended for six months. Unfortunately, the study went on for four decades. The study involved 600 Black men. 399 with syphilis and 201 without the disease. Ethic codes were broken due to the fact that the study group was misinformed.

“Researchers told the [unaffected] men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In truth, they did not receive the proper treatment needed to cure their illness. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance” the CDC reports.

The History Channel website stated that the men were monitored by health workers but only given placebos such as aspirin and mineral supplements, despite the fact that penicillin became the recommended treatment for syphilis in 1947, some 15 years into the study. PHS researchers convinced local physicians in Macon County not to treat the participants, and instead research was done at the Tuskegee Institute. For instance, “In order to track the disease’s full progression, researchers provided no effective care as the men died, went blind or insane or experienced other severe health problems due to their untreated syphilis.”

As a result, McGill University writes that there was outrageous controversy, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) launched a class action lawsuit against the USPHS in 1972. “It settled the suit two years later for 10 million dollars and agreed to pay the medical treatments of all surviving participants and infected family members, the last of whom died in 2009.”

(Source: McGill University)

“The Tuskegee study has had lasting effects on America. It’s estimated that the life expectancy of Black men fell by up to 1.4 years when the study’s details came to light. Many also blame the study for impacting the willingness of Black individuals to willingly participate in medical research today”, McGill states.

Typically, whenever Black people are hesitant to go to the hospital or seek medical care, it is more often connected to the traumatic history they have encountered from health professionals and the medical industry. The Tuskegee experiment is just one of the notable events regarding many medical malpractices against the Black community.


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