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The Tuskegee Experiment

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In 1932, in the area surrounding the Tuskegee, Macon County, Alabama, the U. S. Public Health Service created a government funded study to be conducted on 600 African American men that were lured in with the promise of free health care. What this study consisted of was testing these men for the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. After the testing was completed 399 infected and 201 healthy men were not told anything except that they had a condition called “bad blood” and that they must continue to come and receive treatment.

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In the early 1930s there was no definite cure for the disease so the study was supposed to treat the men with remedies until a cure could be found; instead funding ran out and treatment could no longer be provided . Even though there was no money coming in to pay for treatment for the men, the study was continued so that instead the effects of this deadly disease when it remains untreated could be studied.

“The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is one of the most horrendous examples of research carried out in disregard of basic ethical principles of conduct.

The publicity surrounding the study was one of the major influences leading to the codification of protection for human subjects. ” (Jones, 1981) What these men went through over the 40 years of study can be labeled as one of the grossest injustices known to mankind. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by bacteria called Treponema pallidum; which is passed from person to person through unprotected sexual contact with any part of the body, the signs and symptoms of syphilis are very similar to that of other diseases or often times unnoticeable which causes it to be incorrectly diagnosed or go untreated for year.

When symptoms are found in the primary stages they are in the form of a single sore, also called a chancre, which is easily treated by the medicine penicillin, as the stages progress a rough skin rash red in color will start to appear. Other symptoms include fever, sore throat, swollen lymph glands, hair and weight loss, and muscle aches, all of which disappear with or without treatment. What remains however, is the infection within the body spreading to the most important internal organs as time passes.

This disease is difficult to catch because it can remain dormant in the body for years before attacking the blood, liver, bones, brain, and nervous system aggressively. When it is too late for treatment the symptoms include delayed motor skills, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, dementia and eventually death. Syphilis is a dangerous disease that is not only passed from person to person but also from mother to unborn child. Infected mothers can have miscarriages, stillborn births, or have a child prone to seizures and eventual death. The U. S. Public Health Service (PHS) initiated this study after they conducted a study at the Delta Pine and Land Company of Mississippi where they found roughly 25% of a population of over 2000 employees to be infected with syphilis. When the experiment began it was only Macon County; due to the lack of willing participants the study was extended to four other counties in Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee which lead to the final count of 600 men. The PHS and a private charity organization funded the study in order to treat the men and slow down the rapidly spreading disease.

Unfortunately the Great Depression began not long after the start of the study and so there was soon no money to support the treatment of so many men. Instead of ending the study members of the PHS became curious about the differences of affects on Caucasian Americans verses African Americans; they decided to continue the study for the sake of mankind. The Public Health Service went to the Tuskegee Institute in the hopes of receiving support in convincing the men to remain in the study.

Tuskegee had a long record of serving the African American community the PHS believed that the men would remain in the study because they trusted the institute. For their help, Tuskegee Institute was given money, jobs for the nurses, and training for interns. In the 1900s African Americans had little access to medical care so when it was provided for free along with food and transportation there was no reason for the men to decline. “Burial Stipends were used to get permission from family members to perform autopsies on study participants (Jones, 1981). Participants were not only mislead about the dangerous disease they were infected with, but they were also provided the smallest amount of treatment deemed insufficient to cure the disease but strong enough to prolong life in order to continue the study. In the 1940s the medicine penicillin was discovered to be a cure for the dreadful disease. The PHS quickly sent out lists to all hospitals, clinics, and penicillin distributors with the names of very participant in the study asking them to refrain from providing the men with the cure.

What began as a plan to help these men, turned into a study while a cure was pursued, to a deliberate act to keep these men infected with syphilis while the chances of survival slowly dwindled away. Even at the start of World War II when 250 members of the study were enlisted and penicillin shots were a service requirement the PHS convinced the draft boards to let them serve without the shot. The original remedies that the doctors and nurses of the Tuskegee Experiment used were bismuth, neoarsphenamine, and mercury and each had only been proven to treat the beginning stages of the disease and not the final most violent stage.

After some time had passed treatment stopped altogether and patients were handed pink pills or aspirin as it called today. When a dangerous spinal tap became necessary the PHS promoted the tap by calling it the “Last Chance for Special Free Treatment” (Jones 1981). Another important detail kept from the test subjects was that autopsies would be required upon death; this was the only aspect of the study that doctors were interested in studying and time simply had to be wasted until the men were dead and the internal damage could be examined.

One interesting story within the Tuskegee Experiment is one of the nurses involved now has a movie based on her recollection of the study. Eunice Rivers, an African American nurse, was one of the leading factors in keeping the men in the experiment. Rivers had the privilege of receiving a formal education but still held onto her roots so it was quite easy to relate to the men and speak in terms that were understandable. Joining the experiment when it was considered a good cause Nurse Rivers went out day after day recruiting men with the promise of free health care, food, and transportation.

When the experiment took a turn for the worst Rivers was concerned for the men and their well-being but was quickly silenced by the PHS and the guarantee that the experiment would help the whole African American race. Nurse Rivers stood by the experiment for the whole 40 years even if she had to chase the men down and bring them to treatment herself. Years later when testifying Nurse Rivers explained her role she described it as one of passive obedience: “we were taught that we never diagnosed, we never prescribed; we followed the doctor’s instructions. (Miss Evers Boys 2001) From the movie based on her personal experience and the testimonies of the victims and family members it is apparent that the men in the experiment trusted her and stuck with the experiment because of her promises of hope and a cure. There is no doubt that she cared for the men; however, her moral judgment was clearly tainted by the fear of authority and amazingly at the end of it all Nurse Rivers held firm to the belief that nothing unethical had been done. In 1972, 40 years after this dreadful experiment began the story was heard.

The Washington Star printed an article on July 25 by Jean Heller; her source was Peter Buxtun who happened to be a former interviewer on venereal disease for the PHS. While the Public Health Service claimed that all the men had been “volunteers” more witness to and victims of this horrible study came forward only verifying Buxtun’s statement. While under the public eye the government quietly ended the experiment and for the first time in 40 years provided the men with actual syphilis treatment.

A lawyer named Fred Gray who had previously represented Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King filed a class action suit that resulted in a $10 million out of court settlement for the men and their families. The disturbing part of the court case was that only Caucasian doctors, nurses, and organizations were charged with the crime when in fact an African American doctor, nurse, and institution played massive roles in enabling the study to last as long as it did. Many media sources compared the Tuskegee Experiment to the experiments conducted by Nazi doctors on Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust.

The PHS denied this claim but managed to have a very similar defense for their doings as the defendants in the Nuremberg Trials claiming they were only doing as they were told for fear of persecution. More than half the doctors convicted still try to justify the experiment as for the greater good of science. In the end, 28 men died directly from the syphilis disease, 100 died of related complications, 40 of the men’s wives were infected and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis. The United States government did something that was wrong-deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens…clearly racist. ” (Jet 1997) The 600 men involved in the Tuskegee Experiment were treated like lab rats with no consideration for their livelihood, well-being, or families. To put a single race through such torture just to see what will happen and claim that it was for the greater good of mankind goes against every law and amendment created by government.

This experiment can be considered genocide due to the fact that it was conducted by what was at the time a superior race over an inferior one when the government knew that the end result of untreated syphilis is death. Because of the horrendous event in American history the African American community has lost much trust in the American government ; they have every right not to trust that the government has their best interests at heart. After the Tuskegee Experiment came to light organizations developed surveys to see the effects this experiment has left on African Americans.

In 1990, a survey found that 10% of African Americans believe that the U. S. government created the AIDS virus as a way to exterminate blacks, another 20% could not rule out the possibility that this could be true, 35% believe that AIDS is a form of genocide, and 44% believe that the government is not telling the truth about the AIDS virus. (Pearson Education 2007) For the government, which is controlled by the people for the people, to allow such an experiment to take place on American soil and call it a betterment of mankind just shows how drastic the level of racism is in America and how little respect we as a country have for human life.

Cite this The Tuskegee Experiment

The Tuskegee Experiment. (2017, Mar 29). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-tuskegee-experiment/

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