Have you ever heard one of your elders say something along the lines of “If I have something, I’d rather die with it instead of going to the hospital where they can make it worse?” If not, this was a statement I, a young Black woman, heard my Black grandmother repeatedly say. A statement that her friends also seemed to share. For some, this statement might perplex them. Why would someone actively avoid seeking healthcare? Why would they not want a proper diagnosis if they did have medical issues? While some might attribute this attitude to ignorance, I would strongly suggest that we look into the complicated history that Black Americans have had with the medical world; a history that has created the heightened levels of distrust some Black Americans have with the medical field. While there are plenty of examples that created this distrust throughout history, one highly publicized example is the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, an experiment that would help in creating and facilitating the distrust of the medical field in the Black community.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was a 40-year study created by the United States Public Health Services. They collaborated with the Tuskegee Institute, now known as Tuskegee University, and studied the effects of syphilis on the human body. In particular, the “natural history of syphilis,” which they supposedly studied to justify future treatment plans for Black Americans. In fact, Dr. John Cutler participated in the study during the 1960s and referenced the study as one created for “long term results” which would “improve the quality of care for the black community”. The study was referred to as the “Tuskeegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” and took place in Macon County, Alabama. According to the CDC, the study initially involved 600 Black men. In that number, 399 had syphilis and 201 did not. None of the men were informed of their health statuses. Instead, they were told they were being treated for bad blood. The sign seen below shows an example of the fliers used during the Tuskegee experiment to encourage men to sign up for the study.
The signs would encourage men, Black and poor, to sign up for free blood tests and free treatments by their local county health department. By signing up, they were given free meals, free physicals, and free burial insurances. As stated previously, the men were never told they had syphilis. Instead, the researchers told them they had bad blood, a local term used to describe several ailments. One of the last survivors of the study, Charles Pollards, recounted his story in James H. Jones’ book Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. According to Pollard, the administrators of the physical told him he had “bad blood,” and the term was used to describe his health anytime he was checked over. Not only were the men uninformed of their health status, but they also were never given proper treatments. Instead, they were left untreated for syphilis and given medicine that had no real medicinal properties. The medicine included iron tonic and aspirin. Even when penicillin was known to help with syphilis in 1947, 15 years after the study started, the participants weren’t offered the treatment. Before the penicillin discovery, the participants were denied any other anti-syphilis treatments. During World War II, several of the participants of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment were drafted. Once drafted, these participants were told to begin “anti syphilitic treatment”. To avoid this, the USPHS supplied the draft board with a list of 256 names they wanted exempt from the treatment. The board obliged.
For 36 years, the study would continue until a whistleblower, Peter Buxom, would become concerned with the ethics of the study. This led to Buxom leaking information on the study to a reporter friend. His reporter friend passed the information on to Jean Heller, a fellow reporter for the associated press. In July of 1972, the 40th year of the study, Heller released an article in the New York Times that detailed the Tuskegee syphilis study and how victims were left untreated. Of course, this article prompted public outrage and further investigation. On November 16, 1972, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare would terminate the “Tuskegee Study”. Due to the study, the National Research Act was signed into law in 1974. This act created the National Commission for Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, a group that identified basic research principles research. The study also forced the government to change research practices and require research funded by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to receive voluntary informed consent from participants. Unfortunately, the study had already tragically and negatively affected the participants and their families. By the time the study was revealed to the public, 28 participants had died from syphilis, 100 of them died from related complications, 40 spouses had contracted the disease and 19 children were born with the disease.
The “Tuskeegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” study, now commonly known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, is one of the most prime and known examples of an unethical medical study practiced on Black people, specifically Black Americans. While popularized due to concerns regarding the Covid-19 vaccine and medical mistrust in the Black community, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is not the only experiment to have used unethical medical studies and practices on Black people. There is a book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentations on Black American from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A, Washington that details some of the unethical medical experimentations done on Black Americans. I would highly encourage people to read this book because the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was not an isolated case. It was a case in a series of other problematic cases that contributed to the distrust of the medical field in the Black community. I end this article with a tweet from fellow Joshua’s Truth’s contributor and historian, Nzinga Muhammad.