In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Services (USPHS) started an experiment to determine the natural course of untreated, latent syphilis in African-American men from Macon County, Alabama. This study became one of the most important studies of the 20th century and is a main reason why today we have a set of ethical codes in human research studies. The researchers involved in the study wanted to observe the natural progression of syphilis, gathered participants who did not know what the study was actually about, and continued an unethical experiment for 40 years.
The study done in Macon County, Alabama was titled the Study of Syphilis in the Untreated Negro and the purpose behind the study, which was to observe the progression of syphilis, was not kept a secret from the medical community (Brett and Jackson, 2012). The purpose was, however, kept from the men in the study. They were told that they would receive treatment, although, there was no intention on behalf of the researchers to provide this treatment. During the 40 years of the Tuskegee experiments the USPHS consistently ensured these men did not receive treatment from other sources. They met with the physicians in the area to request that if these men came seeking services they would be denied and when the Army drafted men in 1941 and requested these men get anti-syphilitic treatment the USPHS supplied a list of men to have excluded from treatment and the army complied (Brandt, 1979). The purpose of the study was to simply watch the progression of latent syphilis.
The study consisted of 400 men with syphilis as the experimental group and 200 uninfected men who served as the control group. Macon County, Alabama had a majority of African-Americans who were largely illiterate, living in poverty, and many men who met the criteria for the target population of this study, which was black males with syphilis whom had never been treated (Brett and Jackson, 2012). The men were uneducated about syphilis and the way it is contracted, from sexual intercourse and being passed from mother to unborn child, and did not know they were infected with syphilis. They believed they had “bad blood”, a generic term for many ailments at the time. This study called for African-American males between the ages 25 and 60 who had latent syphilis and a thorough physical examination, x-rays, and a spinal tap to determine the incidences of neuro-syphilis were performed (Brandt, 1979). The researchers gave the false hope of treatment by calling the above procedures treatment, in order to get the men to cooperate in the study.
The Study of Syphilis in the Untreated Negro violated the most basic of human rights of 400 men. The very reason and nature of the study was kept from the participants. Treatment for syphilis was withheld and effected more the just the men in the study for these men had families. In 1972 the news hit the papers and the experiment was finally stopped. In 1973 the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) gave a final report on the Tuskegee experiments, stating that the USPHS study of untreated syphilis was “ethically unjustified” (Brandt, 1979). An ethical standard of today’s research is that no human being should be subject to any research study which puts participants in danger of death or physical harm, by providing no treatment, without informed consent. Ethical standards were brought about by Hitler’s Nazi Germany genocide experiments and others, such as the one in Macon County, which have proven to ruin people’s lives and health.
The Tuskegee experiment was a longitudinal study that should never have occurred. The men who participated in the study did not know that they were being used to watch the progression of the disease. They had been lied to and did not knowingly volunteer for the eventual outcome of death by untreated syphilis. Due to the racist attitudes in the earlier part of the 20th century this inhumane study was allowed to continue for 40 years. Today, people are given as much information as possible on a study before they sign a consent form to join a study group. Even if they only receive placebo they have knowingly consented to being a study subject and they are aware of what may or may not happen.
Brandt, A.M., (1978). Racism and research: the case of the Tuskegee syphilis Study. The Hastings Center Report; 8:6, 21-29. Retrieved April 1, 2012 from http://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3372911/Brandt_Racism.pdf?sequence=1
Cook, B.D. and Jackson, T.R., (2012). Eighty years of bad blood: the evolution of human research after the Tuskegee study. Journal of Healthcare, Science, and Humanities; 2:1, 31-58. Retrieved April 1, 2012 from http://nmvaa.org/files/6413/3299/3993/JHSH_Vol_2_No_1.pdf