The Dangers of Difference, Revisited
PATRICIA A. KING
Thirty years ago, in late July 1972, Associated Press reporter Jean Heller broke the stoiy of the longest and most scandalous “nontherapeutic” experiment on human beings in U.S. history. Beginning in Macon County, Alabama, in 1932, the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) had been conducting the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”—a forty-year study of untreated syphilis involving 399 poor black men suffering from the disease and 201 control subjects.
The seminal account of the USPHS-sponsored study is given by James Jones in his book Bad Blood (Jones 1993). As Jones describes, this was a “study in nature” intended to track the effects of untreated syphilis on black humans over time. The research subjects1 were misled about the nature and intent of the study, and therefore informed consent was impossible. When, in the 1940s, penicillin was discovered to be a cure for syphilis, the monitoring physicians of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study did not give their subjects the treatment—indeed, the researchers took measures to prevent other physicians from giving the needed drug.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study was not an aberration, as African Americans were extensively used as the subjects of medical experimentation during the nineteenth century (Byrd and Clayton 2000). Rather, the study can be seen as one chapter in the long history of still-extant racial ideologies and practices in U.S. science and medicine. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study has, however, attained a special status. As Susan Reverby points out in the introduction to her influential book Tuskcr¡ce's Truths, ““t”he Tuskegee Study is America's metaphor for racism in medical research” (Reverby 2000, 3). As Reverby makes clear, there are many dimensions to the study, each emphasizing different aspects of the multifacetcd interactions between researchers and their subjects and even between science itself and the culture in which it flourishes. Interestingly, even