UH Medical School Chief Questioned Tuskegee Study

Honolulu Star - Advertiser, April 8, 2015 | Go to article overview

UH Medical School Chief Questioned Tuskegee Study


Dr. Irwin Schatz, a former chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of Hawaii who played a key role in questioning the ethics of the infamous Tuskegee Study and the father of U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, died of cancer in his home in Hono­lulu on April 1. He was 83.

Schatz was chairman of the John A. Burns School of Medicine for more than two decades. At UH, Schatz became a central contributor to the Hono­lulu Heart Program, a long-term study begun in 1965 which focuses on the relationships between human aging and heart disease. Its major findings include the existence of "good" cholesterol and the central role that frailty plays in poor health outcomes; the study has helped to improve the treatment of heart disease worldwide.

"Dr. Schatz was loved by generations of medical students and his colleagues," said Dr. Jerris Hedges, dean of the School of Medicine. "Faculty like Dr. Schatz contributed so much in building a school that is now ... No. 19 in the country in primary care. ... His role as chair of medicine began during an important time for the UH medical school."

Schatz's children include a pair of identical twins, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Stephen Schatz, assistant superintendent of schools.

Irwin Schatz helped to train and mentor generations of new physicians, and was widely respected for his medical knowledge and skills with patients in clinical situations. He emphasized how listening and empathy improve patient care, prompting a new direction in medical education in Hawaii.

By the time of his retirement in 2011, he had taught thousands of Hawaii physicians, and in particular imparted the so-called "Schatz method" of reading EKGs.

Schatz spent his career helping those less fortunate, exemplified by his role in questioning the Tuskegee Study. Between 1932 and 1972 the U.S. Public Health Service ran the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, in which 399 African-American sharecroppers with syphilis were observed to learn the natural progression of the disease if left untreated. Reading about the study in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1964, Schatz was appalled to learn that penicillin -- already known to be effective in treating syphilis -- was being withheld in the study.

In a letter sent directly to the study's author, Schatz wrote, "I am utterly astounded by the fact that physicians allow patients with potentially fatal disease to remain untreated when effective therapy is available. I assume that you feel the information which is extracted from observation of this untreated group is worth their sacrifice. If this is the case, then I suggest that the United States Public Health Service and those physicians associated with it in this study need to re-evaluate their moral judgments in this regard. …

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