In 1932, the United States Public Health Service (PHS) recruited 600 African American men in Macon County, Alabama, to take part in an experiment from 1932 to 1972 by promising them free healthcare, food, and transportation. Most of the volunteers had never received any medical care whatsoever, so they were eager to participate.
399 of the participants were infected with latent syphilis, while a control group of 201 remained free from the disease, were told by PHS doctors they would receive treatment for their “bad blood” - a term used to refer to a variety of illnesses and symptoms. But this was a lie. The men infected with syphilis were never informed they had the disease.
The original purpose of the Tuskegee experiment, led by Dr. Taliaferro Clark, was to observe the progression of syphilis for 6 to 8 months, followed by treatment. The Tuskegee Institute joined with PHS researchers, and in return, the institute received compensation: money, employment for its nurses, and training for their interns.
The institute lost funding for the study, which meant treatment would not be affordable, but the experiment was not terminated. Instead, the doctors modified the study: to observe the effects of syphilis on the African American men without any treatment, only placebos. Eventually, the men’s health began to deteriorate - some went blind and insane.
When the project started in 1932, the doctors were aware that arsenic therapy was effective for treating syphilis. Even in 1945, when penicillin was found to be a cure for syphilis, the PHS researchers did not administer treatment to the men with syphilis.
Laws were set into place requiring treatment for venereal diseases, but the researchers of the Tuskegee experiment ignored them. During the war, 50 of the participants were required by the draft board to get treated for syphilis, but PHS requested the draft board exclude the men from treatment, and the request was honored. Some participants who left Macon County were tracked by PHS researchers utilizing local health departments to ensure the infected men would never receive appropriate care.
In the 60s, Peter Buxton, a PHS general disease researcher, heard about the Tuskegee project and declared it unethical. PHS officials responded to Buxton by forming a committee to review the Tuskegee study, but the committee decided to continue the experiment. Their mission was to track all of the participants until their death so that postmortem examinations could be performed, and the data could be analyzed.
Buxton informed one of his friends, a reporter who passed it on to Jean Heller of the Associated Press. The shocking story of the Tuskegee experiment was published in the Washington Star on July 25, 1972, and the next day the story appeared on the cover of The New York Times. The survivors of the experiment filed a lawsuit, which resulted in a $9 million settlement. Only 74 of the participants survived. Some of the men’s wives were infected with syphilis, and 19 of the men fathered children with were born with the disease. It wasn’t until 1997 that President Bill Clinton issued a public apology stating, “The United States government did something that was wrong, deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It is not only in remembering that shameful past that we can make amends and repair our nation, but it is in remembering that past that we can build a better present and a better future.”
It was later discovered the U.S. sponsored a similar medical experiment from 1946 to 1948, led by Dr. John F. Mahoney, assistant chief of the Public Health Service Venereal Disease Research, and Dr. John Charles Cutler, who also took part in the late years of the Tuskegee experiment. With the cooperation of the Guatemalan government, 700 men and women in Guatemala—people with mental disorders, soldiers, and prisoners—were infected with syphilis intentionally without their consent. The purpose was to see if penicillin could prevent the disease and not just cure it. Unfortunately, many of the participants unknowingly passed the disease on to their children and none of them ever received medical treatment for syphilis.