Apology Can't Erase Tuskegee Horror Experiment on Black Men Remains a Blot on American History

By Beck, Joan | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 2, 1997 | Go to article overview

Apology Can't Erase Tuskegee Horror Experiment on Black Men Remains a Blot on American History


Beck, Joan, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


President Bill Clinton can apologize on behalf of the nation to the survivors of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis project, as he did Friday. But he can't erase the ugly, inexcusable, racist blot from American history. Nothing can. Ever.

A few things are unforgivable. This is one.

The stain of the Tuskegee experiment on American history shakes even people who still staunchly believe in my-country-right-or wrong. For others, the horror of what the American government did to hundreds of poor black men with syphilis on the pretense of giving them medical care is reason never ever to trust the government, the medical establishment or white people. What was called the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male was begun in 1932, when the United States Public Health Service began tracking 399 black men with syphilis and 201 others in a control group. The purpose was to chart the natural history of the disease without treatment - something that could readily have been learned from centuries of history. Men recruited for the study - most of them poor laborers and sharecroppers - weren't told its purpose or its connection with syphilis. They were promised free medical care for other ailments (although they received very little), given some free meals and told their burial expenses would be paid if their family agreed to an autopsy. Doctors connected with the study didn't even use the term "syphilis." They told those who tested positive for the venereal disease that they had "bad blood." Unconscionably, when penicillin was discovered and found to be a cure for syphilis in the 1940s, the men in the Tuskegee study were not informed, nor were they given the new drug. No one knows for sure how many of the men died as a direct result of complications caused by syphilis. But it was at least 28 and perhaps as many as 100, according to historian James H. Jones, whose book, "Bad Blood" is the most complete account of the Tuskegee disgrace. Others had syphilis-related heart conditions that may have contributed to their deaths, Jones reports. Just as reprehensible, no efforts were made to explain the nature of syphilis to the infected men or to caution them about spreading the disease to their wives and other sexual contacts. There were no attempts to trace, warn and treat sexual partners, however great the danger involved. No one knows how much the Tuskegee project contributed to the high rate of syphilis in the Alabama backwater area where the men lived. But the government has been providing lifetime medical benefits to 22 wives, 17 children and 2 grandchildren with syphilis they may have been exposed to by the untreated Tuskegee men, according to The New York Times. Syphilis is a highly contagious disease caused by a microscopic, corkscrew-shaped organism usually transmitted by sexual intercourse, although occasionally by other contact such as kissing. …

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