Wednesday, January 13, 2010


"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. The study was conducted to determine from autopsies what the disease does to the human body."

Excerpt from Jean Heller’s article published July 25th, 1972 in the Washington Star

An article published in the Washington Star on July 25, 1972 and written by Associated Press reporter Jean Heller outraged and horrified most Americans. The African American community was traumatized and the effects of the experiment are felt to this day. This experiment sanctioned by the American government and conducted on American citizens has been compared to the medical experiments in the Nazi death camps during the second world war. Incidentally, the medical experiments of the Nazi death camps were first conducted on the Herero people of Namibia from 1904 to 1908 in the German genocidal attacks against the Herero.

Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment written by white historian James Jones published in 1981documents the atrocity committed against African American families in Macon County, Alabama from 1932 to 1972. African American men infected with syphilis were used as guinea pigs in one of the most racist experiments documented. The men were “observed” for 40 years as they deteriorated, their wives became infected and their children were born with congenital syphilis. The white doctors knew that syphilis could cause blindness, mental illness and death. They knew that children born with congenital syphilis could be born with various deformities. During the 40 year experiment the men were never told that they were infected with syphilis so they did not know the risk to their wives and children. When publicity and public outrage forced a halt to the experiment in 1972, there were only 74 survivors of the horrific experiment.

Although it has been 36 years since the Tuskegee Experiment ended, the trauma persists into the 21st century where there are some African Americans who mistrust the entire medical establishment and are convinced that AIDS is a man-made disease created by their government with the “express purpose of killing off blacks.” The skepticism with which African Americans view the medical profession is legitimate as borne out by a 2002 report. In 2002, an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report requested by Congress listed more than 100 studies documenting a wide range of disparities in the nation's health care system. The report said that racialized people often receive a lower quality of health care than people of European descent, even when their income levels and medical insurance coverage are the same. One of the studies found that African Americans were far less trusting than whites of the medical establishment and of medical researchers in particular. African Americans were 79.2 percent more likely to believe that someone like them would be used as a guinea pig without his or her consent, versus 51.9 percent of the whites surveyed. This study also found that 62.8 percent of African Americans (versus 38.4 percent of whites) believe that physicians often prescribed medication as a way of experimenting on people without their consent.

In writing Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Jones searched archives, reviewed medical reports, read the physicians' official letters (many with references to ''ignorant darkies'' and ''the Ethiopian population''.) Jones suggests that the Tuskegee Experiment was rooted in the Social Darwinism and pseudoscientific beliefs of white America through most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, that African Americans were an inferior people with large genitalia and small brains, being destroyed by freedom. Jones has been criticized for portraying the doctors (Dr. Taliaferro Clark, Dr. Oliver C. Wenger, Dr. Kario Von Pereira-Bailey, and Dr. Raymond H. Vonderlehr) involved in the experiment as ''liberals'' and ''reformers'' who had genuinely wanted to help African Americans. Reading the ''progress reports'' of racist doctors with very obviously white supremacist thinking makes it extremely difficult to agree with Jones’s characterization of the white doctors as “liberals” and “reformers.” In explaining why he chose Macon County as the site for the experiment Dr. Taliaferro Clark of the US Public Health Service wrote that the “rather low intelligence of the Negro population and the depressed economic conditions” made Macon County “a natural laboratory; a ready-made situation.” These “liberal, reformer” doctors watched African American men for 40 years as they suffered swollen glands, circulatory problems, paralysis, blindness and eventually death.

In 1973, the surviving victims of the experiment sued the government in a class action suit that was settled out of court in December 1974. "The plaintiffs agreed to drop further action in exchange for cash payment of $37,000 to every `living syphilitic' who was alive on July 23, 1973." On May 16th, 1997, the survivors of this reprehensible experiment and their families received an apology from President Bill Clinton. Clinton said in part: “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. The American people are sorry -- for the loss, for the years of hurt. You did nothing wrong, but you were grievously wronged. I apologize and I am sorry that this apology has been so long in coming.”

Not surprisingly, since Clinton’s apology there has been some effort to rationalize the Tuskegee Experiment. Tuskegee's Truths: Rethinking the Tuskegee Syphilis Study edited by Susan M. Reverby and published in 2000 contains some of those attempts. However, the Tuskegee experiment was just the most publicized in a long and continuing history of the American medical establishment using African-Americans as human guinea pigs. Harriet A. Washington documents that history in Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, published in 2007. The documentation of the Tuskegee experiment is matched by the gruesome experiments that were carried out on enslaved African women.

In 1972, the federal government began requiring that hospitals, clinics, universities, and researchers who conducted experiments with human subjects submit the plans for their experiments to an Institutional Review Board (IRB). No experiment could begin until the IRB evaluated its design, agreed that the potential benefits to subjects outweighed potential risks, and concluded that subjects would be able to understand what they were agreeing to by consenting to participate. Harriet A.Washington, documents the continued medical exploitation of vulnerable Africans in America, including the 1998 New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University drug experiments on 34, six to ten year old males to supposedly determine a genetic predisposition for 'disruptive behavior.' Dr. Clyde Kaiser was mistaken when he said to the 1969 Ad Hoc Committee to Consider the Tuskegee Study: "This is not a study that would be repeated now. The public conscience would not accept it."

Written in July 2008

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