October 19, 1932 (a Wednesday)

Depression-era U.S. poster advocating early syphilis treatment. Although treatments were available, participants in the study did not receive them.

On this date, Dr. Raymond A. Vonderlehr arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, following a rainy drive from Washington, DC. After meeting Dr. Oliver C. Wenger, both men drove down to Tuskegee, checking into the only hotel for whites in town – the Carr Hotel. Here they intended to spread the word to Macon County’s black population that a new syphilis control demonstration was about to begin. In actuality, this was the beginning of what was to become the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a non-therapeutic, observational study of the effects of untreated sexually-transmitted syphilis in poor, rural black men who thought they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government.

Investigators enrolled in the study a total of 600 impoverished, African-American sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama; 399 who had previously contracted syphilis before the study began, and 201 without the disease. For participating in the study, the men were given free medical care, meals, and free burial insurance. They were never told they had syphilis, nor were they ever treated for it. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the men were told they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several illnesses, including syphilis, anemia and fatigue.

The 40-year study was controversial for reasons related to ethical standards, primarily because researchers knowingly failed to treat patients appropriately after the 1940s validation of penicillin as an effective cure for the disease they were studying. Choices available to the doctors involved in the study might have included treating all syphilitic subjects and closing the study, or splitting off a control group for testing with penicillin. Instead, the Tuskegee scientists continued the study without treating any participants and withholding penicillin and information about it from the patients. In addition, scientists prevented participants from accessing syphilis treatment programs available to others in the area. The study continued under numerous U.S. Public Health Service supervisors until 1972, when a leak to the press by Peter Buxtun, a PHS venereal disease investigator, eventually resulted in its termination.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study has been called “arguably the most infamous biomedical research study in U.S. history.”

References:

  • James H. Jones. Bad Blood (Simon & Schuster, 1992) pp. 113-114.
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