The Tuskegee Experiment was a notorious medical experiment carried out in the United States between 1932 and 1972, in which almost 400 black Americans with syphilis were offered no medical treatment, allowing researchers to see the course of the disease. The events of the Tuskegee Experiment triggered extensive ethics legislation, including the National Research Act, and the experiment attracted a great deal of public attention. Many people regard the Tuskegee Experiment as an extremely shameful event in American history, and several organizations including the Centers for Disease Control have extensive archives on the experiment which are available to interested members of the public who want to learn more about it.
There were so many problems with the Tuskegee Experiment that it is difficult to even begin to list them. The architects of the experiment claimed that they were performing valuable research on the disease, but even at the time, many people doubted this, especially after 1947, when penicillin treatment for syphilis became available. The primary value of the study subjects to the researchers from the United States Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute was as autopsy subjects, as they claimed that they were going to prove that untreated syphilis caused extensive cardiac damage in blacks.
The research subjects were extremely poor black sharecroppers from rural Alabama. The study lacked even the rudiments of informed consent, with participants being told that they were receiving treatment for “bad blood.” Over the course of the study, the men were periodically called in to receive “treatments” which were actually medical tests used to gauge the severity of their conditions, and the progress of the syphilis was documented by the research team. The men were offered no treatment, and were in fact deliberately denied available syphilis treatments, an action which runs contrary to the most fundamental of medical ethics.
Over the course of the study, 40 wives were infected with syphilis, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis. A number of the men died incredibly painful and prolonged deaths as a result of untreated syphilis, and some of the researchers on the program began to doubt its merits. Several whistleblowers independently wrote concerned letters, but the study did not really begin to attract scrutiny until 1972, when a reporter named Jean Heller broke the story in the Washington Star.
When Americans learned that black men had been allowed to suffer from advanced syphilis without treatment, the public outcry led to a cancellation of the study, along with the prompt passage of several laws designed to spell out fundamental medical ethics which all experiments in the future would be expected to observe. In 1973, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won a nine million dollar lawsuit, using the proceeds to fund medical care for the victims of the experiment. The United States government also agreed to provide lifetime free medical care to the men along with their wives and surviving children.
It was not until 1997 that the federal government issued a formal apology for the Tuskegee Experiment, in the form of an address from President Bill Clinton. The Tuskegee Experiment continues to rankle with many black Americans, who compare it to the medical experiments performed by Nazis in German concentration camps. Not only was the Tuskegee Experiment morally unconscionable, it was also medically pointless, having no practical value whatsoever, and this makes it all the more shameful.