Syphilis Study Still Provokes Disbelief, Sadness
Read a commentary by Tuskegee Legacy Committee Chair Dr. Vanessa Gamble.
Listen to Alex Chadwick's report.
Nurses examine one of the Tuskegee syphilis study participants.
Photo courtesy National Archives
On behalf of the country, President Clinton apologized in 1997 to Charlie Pollard, pictured here, and other Tuskegee survivors.
Photo courtesy Joan Echtenkamp Klein
July 25, 2002 --Thirty years ago today, the Washington Evening Star newspaper ran this headline on its front page: "Syphilis Patients Died Untreated." With those words, one of America's most notorious medical studies, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, became public.
"For 40 years, the U.S. Public Health Service has conducted a study in which human guinea pigs, not given proper treatment, have died of syphilis and its side effects," Associated Press reporter Jean Heller wrote on July 25, 1972. "The study was conducted to determine from autopsies what the disease does to the human body."
The next morning, every major U.S. newspaper was running Heller's story. For Morning Edition, NPR's Alex Chadwick reports on how the Tuskegee experiment was discovered after 40 years of silence.
The Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute, began the study in 1932. Nearly 400 poor black men with syphilis from Macon County, Ala., were enrolled in the study. They were never told they had syphilis, nor were they ever treated for it. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the men were told they were being treated for "bad blood," a local term used to describe several illnesses, including syphilis, anemia and fatigue.
For participating in the study, the men were given free medical exams, free meals and free burial insurance.
At the start of the study, there was no proven treatment for syphilis. But even after penicillin became a standard cure for the disease in 1947, the medicine was withheld from the men. The Tuskegee scientists wanted to continue to study how the disease spreads and kills. The experiment lasted four decades, until public health workers leaked the story to the media.
By then, dozens of the men had died, and many wives and children had been infected. In 1973, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a class-action lawsuit. A $9 million settlement was divided among the study's participants. Free health care was given to the men who were still living, and to infected wives, widows and children.
But it wasn't until 1997 that the government formally apologized for the unethical study. President Clinton delivered the apology, saying what the government had done was deeply, profoundly and morally wrong:
"To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish.
"What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say, on behalf of the American people: what the United States government did was shameful.
"And I am sorry."
More NPR stories on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
Transcript of President Clinton's 1997 formal apology to study members.
Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Tuskegee study Web site .
A CDC timeline on the Tuskegee study.
CDC factsheet on syphilis.
1996 report by the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Legacy Committee on how the public response to the Tuskegee study.
Background on the Tuskegee study, from the Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics.
Tributes to Herman Shaw, who died Dec. 3, 1999, and Fred Simmons, who died Feb 5, 2000.