July 25 marked the 50th anniversary of the exposure of the Tuskegee Syphilis study.
For 40 years the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) conducted a study in which human guinea pigs, denied proper medical treatment, have died of syphilis and its side effects.
The study was conducted to determine from autopsies what the disease does to the human body.
In 1932, the USPHS, working with the Tuskegee Institute, began a study to record the natural history of syphilis. It was originally called the ‘Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male’ (now referred to as the ‘USPHS Syphilis Study at Tuskegee’). The study initially involved 600 Black men—399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease. Participants’ informed consent was not collected. Researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance.
By 1943, penicillin was the treatment of choice for syphilis and becoming widely available, but the participants in the study were not offered treatment.
In 1972, an Associated Press story about the study was published. As a result, the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs appointed an Ad Hoc Advisory Panel to review the study. The advisory panel concluded that the study was “ethically unjustified”—that is, the “results [were] disproportionately meager compared with known risks to human subjects involved.” In October 1972, the panel advised stopping the study. A month later, the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs announced the end of the study. In March 1973, the panel also advised the Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) (now known as the Department of Health and Human Services) to instruct the USPHS to provide all necessary medical care for the survivors of the study. The Tuskegee Health Benefit Program (THBP) was established to provide these services. In 1975, participants’ wives, widows and children were added to the program. In 1995, the program was expanded to include health, as well as medical benefits. The last study participant died in January 2004. The last widow receiving THBP benefits died in January 2009. Participants’ children (10 at present) continue to receive medical and health benefits.
Later in 1973, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the study participants and their families, resulting in a $10 million, out-of-court settlement in 1974.
On May 16, 1997, President Bill Clinton issued a formal Presidential Apology for the study.
“The United States government did something that was wrong—deeply, profoundly, morally wrong,” Clinton said. “It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens. 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.”
On July 7, Fred Gray, the lawyer who filed the class-action suit, was among 17 people given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Biden.
“When I filed the various civil rights cases from 1955 to date, I was concerned about African Americans receiving the same constitutional rights as all other Americans,” Gray said in a statement. “We have made substantial progress but the struggle for the elimination of racism and for equal justice continues. I hope this award will encourage other Americans to do what they can to complete the task so that all American citizens will be treated the same, equally and fairly, in accordance with the Constitution.”