Before the Experiment
In 1926, syphilis was considered a major health problem and around twenty-five percent of African American employees had tested positive for syphilis. The Julius Rosenwald Fund went to the U.S. Public Health Service because they wanted to improve the health of African men, mainly in the South. In 1929 when Wall Street crashed and the Great Depression began, the Rosenwald Fund had to cut its fund to help support the African men in the south. In 1931, Dr. Clark decided to follow and investigate untreated syphilis in black men. Unfortunately, in 1932, the experiment began.
The experiment took place at Tuskegee University in Macon County, Alabama. Tuskegee University was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington and was originally founded as a school which allowed former slaves to receive a higher education after the Civil War. Macon County was home to a large number of African Americans who primarily made up the economy. Researchers knew that more than half of the population consisted of sharecroppers and none of them had heard of a doctor before, and even if they had, they had not heard of one which would give free medical treatment. The researchers believed that citizens living in Macon County, Alabama were vulnerable and made an easy target.
The experiment took place from 1932-1972, even though the study was only designed to last nine months. The study took place because scientists wanted to understand the effects of untreated syphilis on African men. Dr. J. E. Moorse stated, "I think that such a study as you have contemplated would be of immense value. It will be necessary of course in the consideration of the results to evaluate the special factors introduced by a selection of the material from Negro males. Syphilis in the Negro is is many aspects a different disease from syphilis in the white". During the first year, the experiment was led by Dr. Taliaferro Clark. Africans were encouraged to come and participate in the experiment, even though they did not know what they were being treated for; the only reason they came was because of the benefits they received. The scientists lied and promised the University that at the end of the experiment, the Africans would get treatment to become better. However, they never did and the University was deceived. Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Laureate Alexander Fleming but was not declared as the official treatment for syphilis until 1945. Even though penicillin was proved to treat syphilis, the participants never received it, because the main purpose was to watch the men slowly inherit the disease and die. Many people tried to stop the experiment, but doctors, such as Surgeon General Cumming stated, "This study which was predominantly clinical in character points to the frequent occurrence of severe complications involving the various vital organs of the body and indicates that syphilis as a disease does a great deal of damage. Since clinical observations are not considered final in the medical world, it is our desire to continue the observation on the cases selected for the recent study and if possible to bring up a percentage of these cases to autopsy so that pathological confirmation may be made of the disease processes."
Later on in the experiment, researchers came out with a new test: spinal taps. The spinal tap test is one in which the spinal column is cut to receive a sample of cerebrospinal fluid. The participants received letters saying the last free treatment was being given out so more and more people showed up. For once, the patients were happy for receiving medical treatment from the government and often brought baked goods for the doctors. This test gave no health benefits to the patients, instead caused severe headaches and nausea. Researchers said it was absolutely necessary in order to test for neuro-syphilis. Dr. Vonderlehr stated, “"You will now be given a last chance for a second examination. This examination is a very special one and after it is finished you will be given a special treatment if it is believed you are in condition to stand it."
The 25-Year certificate was given to all of the surviving participants in 1958 by the USPHS. They wanted to keep their test subjects happy, so they would recommend more people would come to the routine check-ups. They came up with this idea and it symbolized the participant’s involvement in the experiment. Even this late into the experiment, the Africans did not know they were participating in a medical research and could possibly die from a deadly disease.
The experiment ended in 1972 when Peter Buxton, an employee of the Public Health Service, spilled information to Jean Heller, a reporter of the Associated Press. Peter claimed the experiment to be unethical, immoral, and called it a racist study. Later, Senator Edward Kennedy called for a Congressional hearing over the matter, in which Buxton testified. By the end of the experiment, twenty eight men had died of syphilis and one hundred men had died from other complications. Furthermore, forty wives and nineteen children developed syphilis.
Peter Buxton was born in 1937 and was a PHS investigator in San Francisco. He sent a letter to the director of the venereal diseases explaining his concerns with the experiment that was going on.
CDC stated that there was nothing wrong about the study and it was not going to finish until all the participants had died and been autopsied. Hearing this horrific answer, Buxton went to the press in 1970s and his story became headlines in the New York Times the next day.
At the time, Jean Heller was a young reporter who had just come out of college. When Peter Buxton came to her with the story, it was very easy for her to break. Her main goal was to achieve a title on the newspaper that did not affect the victims of the experiment. However, tables turned when she went to Tuskegee and talked to one of the participants; he said it used to be a small, friendly town but everything had changed. Currently, Jean Heller is the co-owner of a marketing and public relations firm and has won many awards.
In the summer of 1973, Fred D. Grey, an attorney general, filed a “class-action” lawsuit on behalf of the participants and their families. They won the testimony and in 1974, a ten million dollar out of court settlement was earned. Also, the U.S. government promised lifetime benefits and burial services to all the participants that were still alive. In 1975, the wives and widows of the participants were added to the lifetime benefits program. In 1995, the government expanded the program by adding health benefits. The last participant died in January 2004 and the last widow died in January 2009. Currently, there are fifteen offspring still receiving medical and health benefits.
Charlie Pollard appeared in Fred Grey’s law office in Tuskegee, Alabama on July 27, 1972. He talked to him about the news article that was published about the experiment. Pollard explained that he was one of the subjects in the study and believed that taking part in the study without him knowing was a violation of his rights. Fred D. Grey decided to file the lawsuit: Pollard v. United States.
On March 16, 1997, President Bill Clinton broadcasted a formal apology for the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. President Clinton stated that the nation did not live up to its promises and broke the trust/betrayed the African population. President Clinton as well as everyone else in the country remembers the innocent men who died due to the government and understood that no one should deserve to go through what the African American males went through. During his speech, President Clinton stated, “"The eight men who are survivors of the syphilis study at Tuskegee are a living link to a time not so very long ago that many Americans would prefer not to remember, but we dare not forget. It was a time when our nation failed to live up to its ideals, when our nation broke the trust with our people that are the very foundation of our democracy."
Herman Shaw was born in 1902 and worked as a farmer and mill-worker. He went to a public school and received an education; however, he was unable to attend college. Shaw was one of the most educated participants and was chosen to deliver a speech to President Clinton and other members of the White house on May 16, 1997. During the speech, he talked about how unjust actions were taken upon African Americans, but it all comes down to forgiveness and learning from our mistakes. During his speech he stated, “"I am an American, true-born, red-blooded American. And I live in America, and I want to live in peace and harmony. How can we love the Lord, whom we've never seen, and hate our fellow men, whom we see every day? I want to get along."