Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy

Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy

Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy

Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy


The forty-year "Tuskegee" Syphilis Study has become the American metaphor for medical racism, government malfeasance, and physician arrogance. The subject of histories, films, rumors, and political slogans, it received an official federal apology from President Bill Clinton in a White House ceremony.

Susan M. Reverby offers a comprehensive analysis of the notorious study of untreated syphilis, which took place in and around Tuskegee, Alabama, from the 1930s through the 1970s. The study involved hundreds of African American men, most of whom were told by the doctors from the U.S. Public Health Service that they were being treated, not just watched, for their late-stage syphilis. Reverby examines the study and its aftermath from multiple perspectives to explain what happened and why the study has such power in collective memory. She follows the study's repercussions in facts and fictions.

Reverby highlights the many uncertainties that dogged the study during its four decades and explores the newly available medical records. She uncovers the different ways it was understood by the men, their families, and the health care professionals, ultimately revising the conventional wisdom on the study.

Writing with rigor and clarity, Reverby illuminates the events and aftermath of the study and sheds light on the complex knot of trust, betrayal, and belief that keeps this study alive in our cultural and political lives.


“He who knows syphilis, knows medicine,” famed early twentiethcentury Johns Hopkins physician Sir William Osler is often quoted as saying. The contemporary adage would be different: “Those who know ‘Tuskegee’ know racism in medicine and injustice.” Yet these simple maxims belie their connected longer versions and not-so-simple truths. A twentieth-century medical research study of African American men with the sexually transmitted disease of syphilis, in which the hundreds involved did not know that treatment was supposedly withheld, has led to many stories where conceptions of race, uncertainties in medicine, mistrust of doctors, and the power of the state intertwine. This book is about what made the study possible, why it continued, and the histories and stories told after it ended. It unravels the political and cultural purposes served when a complicated experience has many narratives, but the tale is told simply as a straightforward allegory for all time about racism, medicine, and mistrust.

At first glance, the crucial facts seem clear: white government doctors from the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) found approximately 400 African American men presumed to all have late-stage, and therefore not infectious, syphilis in and around Tuskegee in Macon County, Alabama. After some initial treatment was given and then stopped, the PHS provided aspirin and iron tonic, implying through deception that these were to cure the men’s “bad blood.” PHS doctors also told nearly 200 controls—men without the disease—that they were being cared for with the same simple medications. The only permission asked for was the right to autopsy their bodies after the men had died in exchange for payment for a decent burial. Doctors and a nurse connected to the county health department, the venerable black edu-

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