On this day in medical history: US apologizes for Tuskegee Syphilis Study

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published May 14, 2018

Key Takeaways

“The United States government did something that was wrong—deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens,” said President Bill Clinton on this day, May 16, 1997. The president apologized directly to five men who were in the White House, as well as to hundreds more who were not present, for the federal government’s role in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

Officially known as the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, the study lasted from 1932 until 1972. It included 600 poor, African American men from Macon County, AL, most of whom were sharecroppers. Of these, 399 men had latent syphilis and the remaining 201, who did not have the disease, served as controls.

The intent of the study was to document the natural history of syphilis. Physicians from the United States Public Health Service, which ran the study, told the men they were being treated for “bad blood”—a catch-all term that included a variety of diseases. In return for their participation, the men received free medical exams at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), where the research was carried out.

But the men were never treated for syphilis. The researchers wanted to observe the men as the natural course of the disease progressed. The only medical care they received was placebo treatment with aspirin and mineral supplements.

Even when penicillin was introduced in 1947, the researchers went to extreme lengths to prevent the men from receiving treatment that could cure them.

By 1972, when a whistleblower in the Public Health Service finally leaked the story to the press, 28 participants had perished from syphilis, 100 had died from related complications, at least 40 spouses had been diagnosed with the disease, and it had been passed to 19 children at birth.

The New York Times called the Tuskegee Syphilis Study “the longest nontherapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history.”

The notoriety of the study spurred Congress to pass the National Research Act of 1974, which requires the publication of regulations for the protection of human subjects, requirements for informed consent, and review of research by institutional research boards.

But it wasn’t until 25 years later that the United States issued a formal apology. At that ceremony, President Clinton was introduced by one of the study’s survivors, 94-year-old Macon County resident Herman Shaw. “We were treated unfairly, to some extent like guinea pigs,” Mr. Shaw said. “The wounds that were inflicted upon us cannot be undone.”

In his apology, President Clinton said, “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.”

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