Little Known Black History Fact: The Tuskegee Experiment Apology

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  • The Tuskegee Syphilis study was one of the most notorious biomedical experiments in U.S. history. In 1972, forty years ago, Jean Heller of the Washington Evening Star wrote in front page news “Syphilis Patients Died Untreated” making the forty-year experiment public knowledge and bringing shame to public health for the conspiracy.

    600 poor black male sharecroppers, 399 with syphilis and 201 without from Macon County, Alabama were enrolled between 1932 and 1972, but never diagnosed or treated. The victims’ families had never been given an official U.S. apology – until Former President Clinton issued a public government apology first in May, 1997, 15 years ago.

    Those with syphilis were never diagnosed and never treated. An official penicillin cure was established by 1947, but none of the men were given the anticdote. Those that asked for it were given placebos. The men were told they had “bad blood” which might include syphilis, anemia and fatigue. For agreeing to participate in the study, the men were given free medical exams, free meals and free burial insurance but autopsies were required. Most of them wouldn’t be alive to enjoy the incentives.

    The men suffered from tumors, heart disease, paralysis, blindness and insanity before passing away. By the time the experiment was exposed and extinguished, hundreds of black men had died, dozens of wives were infected and had given birth to babies born with the disease. Once the NAACP filed a class-action lawsuit, the remaining relatives were given a $10 million settlement to split, healthcare and treatment for syphilis. Only 74 of the men survived the experiment.

    A meeting was held last March in Washington by a Presidential bioethics commission to discussion the issue of human medical testing, which has been a practice involving poor blacks, prisoners and mental patients for decades. When the U.S. banned testing in the 1970’s, the government moved to foreign countries like Uganda for testing of the AIDS virus. The Obama Administration charged the bioethics commission with focusing on federally funded international studies, and to form groups to investigate the most recent human medical experiments done overseas.

    In Former President Clinton’s apology he said, “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. 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 people who ran the study at Tuskegee diminished the stature of man by abandoning the most basic ethical precepts. They forget their pledge to heal and repair. They had the power to heal the survivors and all the others and they did not. Mr. Shaw, the others who are here, the family members who are with us in Tuskegee, only you have the power to forgive. Your presence here shows us that you have chosen a better path than your government did so long ago.”

    According to the CDC, 15 descendants of the study’s survivors are still receiving their benefits.

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