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What Is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study?

Fact Checked

syphilis blood testing

Story at-a-glance -

  • The Tuskegee Syphilis experiment was started in 1932 by the U.S. Public Health Service, together with the Tuskegee Institute
  • Both organizations aimed to record the natural history of syphilis in order to justify treatment programs for African-American people affected by this STD, as well as to check whether syphilis affected black men differently compared to white men
  • Only 74 of the original participants were alive after the Tuskegee Study was stopped, as 28 men died of syphilis, while a further hundred or so passed away due to complications

Over the years, there have been various studies conducted on syphilis. However, one study made headlines for the wrong reasons. This was known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which was also called the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male."1

Background Information on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

The Tuskegee Syphilis experiment was started in 1932 by the U.S. Public Health Service, together with the Tuskegee Institute. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), both organizations aimed to record the natural history of syphilis to validate the existence of treatment programs for African-Americans with this STD,2 and determine whether syphilis affected them differently compared to Caucasians.3

Tuskegee, located in Macon County, Alabama, was the experiment’s main target since it had the highest syphilis rates in the country during that period.4 This study, while it was projected to last only six months, extended to 40 years. It began with 600 black men: 399 had syphilis, while the remaining 201 didn't have the disease.

Initially, the men were informed that they were being treated for "bad blood," which was used to describe conditions like syphilis, anemia and fatigue. They were given free medical exams, meals, rides to and from the clinic at Tuskegee University, medical treatments for minor ailments5 and burial insurance.6 In James H. Jones’ book “Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment,” Charles Pollard, one of the last survivors of the experiment, recounted his experience:7

“So I went over, and they told me I had bad blood … And that’s what they’ve been telling me ever since. They come around from time to time and check me over and they say, ‘Charlie, you’ve got bad blood’ … All I knew was that they just kept saying I had the bad blood — they never mentioned syphilis to me. Not even once … ”

What Went Wrong in This Study?

Things went downhill for the Tuskegee Syphilis study in July 1972 after a story on it was published in The Associated Press. A public outcry ensued, causing the then Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs to form a panel comprising representatives from the fields of medicine, law, religion, education, labor, health administration and public affairs.8

The panelists concluded that the men agreed to be part of the study, but also determined that they were not told the true nature of it, since they weren’t provided informed consent and were not told it was syphilis that was being studied. They also did not receive a formal syphilis diagnosis and were not given an option to leave the study.9,10

Even worse, despite medical advancements in treating syphilis as the years went by, the men weren’t given treatment for their condition. For example, in 1947, penicillin became the “drug of choice” for syphilis, but it wasn’t administered to the men. Instead, placebos, aspirin or mineral supplements served as the subjects’ “treatments.”11 It was revealed also that the medical staff interfered in external affairs unrelated to the study.

Case in point: When 250 men were drafted for service during World War II, researchers figured out a way to keep them in the study.12 The panel concluded that this study was “ethically unjustified” and recommended it be stopped immediately in October 1972. A month later, it was formally announced that the study ended.13

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The Tuskegee Study’s Aftermath

After the end of the Tuskegee Study, only 74 of the original participants were alive. Twenty-eight men died of syphilis, while hundreds passed away because of complications. It was also revealed that 40 wives were subsequently infected with syphilis and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.14

A class-action lawsuit was filed in the summer of 1973 on behalf of the participants and their children. The suit was settled with a $10 million out-of-court settlement that provided lifetime medical benefits and burial services to the participants, under the guidance of the Tuskegee Health Benefit Program (THBP). Their wives, widows and offspring were added to the settlement program in 1975, which was expanded in 1995 to include health and medical benefits.15

A formal apology was issued by then president Bill Clinton in May 1997, with some of the study’s survivors in attendance.16 In 2004, the last Tuskegee Syphilis study participant passed away.17


Syphilis: Introduction

What Is Syphilis?

Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Congenital Syphilis

Syphilis Stages

Syphilis Causes

Syphilis Transmission

Syphilis Symptoms

Syphilis Treatment

Syphilis Testing

Syphilis Prevention

Syphilis FAQ

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