The United States government committed an act of torture against U.S. citizens in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution and human rights.
For forty years between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) department, conducted an experiment on 399 black men infected with syphilis.
These men, for the most part, were poor farmers from one of the poorest counties in Alabama. They were never told what disease they were suffering from or its seriousness. The doctors that were treating them had no intention of curing them of syphilis, they were ordered to lie to them in order to collect data. The government wanted information on how the disease progressed, what damage it would do to the human body, and any additional information once it killed them. They especially wanted information to be collected from the autopsies of the men, and they were thus deliberately left to degenerate under the ravages of tertiary syphilis.
The men suffered and died with symptoms that included; tumors, heart disease, paralysis, blindness, and insanity.
Below are the Surgeon Generals that had to repeatedly sign off on the experiment to keep it going from one presidency to the next.
RADM Hugh S. Cumming: 5th Surgeon General 1920 to 1936
RADM Thomas Parran, Jr.: 6th Surgeon General 1936 to 1948
RADM Leonard A. Scheele: 7th Surgeon General 1948 to 1956
RADM Leroy Edgar Burney: 8th Surgeon General 1956 to 1961
RADM Luther Terry: 9th Surgeon General 1961 to 1965
VADM William H. Stewart: 10th Surgeon General 1965 to 1969
RADM Jesse Leonard Steinfeld: 11th Surgeon General 1969 to 1973
Using Human Beings as Laboratory Animals
The true nature of the experiment was kept secret from the victims to ensure their cooperation. The sharecroppers were grossly disadvantaged and poor. They easily agreed to a program for free medical care. These poor and trusting men became victims of a cold heartless government. The fact that autopsies would eventually be required was also concealed. As a doctor explained, “If the colored population becomes aware that accepting free hospital care means a post-mortem, every darky will leave Macon County…”
- By the end of the experiment:
- 28 of the men had died directly of syphilis
- 100 were dead of related complications
- 40 of their wives had been infected
- 19 of their children had been born with congenital syphilis
One Surgeon General of the United States participated in enticing the men to remain in the experiment, sending them certificates of appreciation after 25 years in the study.
One of the most chilling aspects of the experiment was how zealously the PHS kept these men from receiving treatment. When several nationwide campaigns to eradicate venereal disease came to Macon County, the men were prevented from participating.
Even when penicillin was discovered in the 1940s—the first real cure for syphilis—the Tuskegee men were deliberately denied the medication.
The experiment continued in spite of the Henderson Act (1943), a public health law requiring testing and treatment for venereal disease, and in spite of the World Health Organization’s Declaration of Helsinki (1964), which specified that “informed consent” was needed for an experiment involving human beings.
Follow-up effort organized into the study of 399 men with syphilis and 201 without. The men would be given periodic physical assessments and told they were being treated. Motin agrees to support study if “Tuskegee Institute gets its full share of the credit” and black professionals are involved (Dr. Dibble and Nurse Rivers are assigned to study).
First papers suggest health effects of untreated syphilis.
A major paper was published. Study criticized because it is not known if men are being treated. Local physicians asked to assist with study and not to treat men. The decision was made to follow the men until death.
Efforts made to hinder men from getting treatment ordered under the military draft effort.
Penicillin accepted as the treatment of choice for syphilis.
USPHS establishes “Rapid Treatment Centers” to treat syphilis; men in the study are not treated, but syphilis declines.
Beginning in 1947, 127 black medical students are rotated through unit doing the study.
Concern is raised about ethics of study by Peter Buxtun and others.
CDC reaffirms the need for study and gains local medical societies’ support (AMA and NMA chapters officially support a continuation of the study).
First news articles condemn studies. (Study ends)
Congress holds hearings and a class-action lawsuit is filed on behalf of the study participants.
A $10 million out-of-court settlement is reached and the U.S. government promised to give lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all living participants. The Tuskegee Health Benefit Program (THBP) was established to provide these services.
Wives, widows, and offspring were added to the program.
The program was expanded to include health as well as medical benefits.
On May 16th President Clinton apologizes on behalf of the Nation.
Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care hosts 1st Annual Commemoration of the Presidential Apology.
President’s Council on Bioethics was established.
CDC funds 10 million dollar-cooperative agreement to continue work at Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care.
The last U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee participant dies on January 16.
Tuskegee University holds the formal opening of Bioethics Center.
CDC hosts Commemorating and Transforming the Legacy of the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) Syphilis Study at Tuskegee.
The last widow receiving THBP benefits dies on January 27.