By MURPHY BROWNE
“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 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. And without remembering it, we cannot make amends and we cannot go forward. So today America does remember the hundreds of men used in research without their knowledge and consent. Men who were poor and African-American, without resources and with few alternatives, they believed they had found hope when they were offered free medical care by the United States Public Health Service. They were betrayed. To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish. What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry. I apologize and I am sorry that this apology has been so long in coming.”
Excerpt from official apology made by U.S. President Bill Clinton on May 16, 1997 about the 40-year syphilis experiment (1932-1972) on African-Americans in Macon, Georgia.
On Tuesday, July 25, 1972 the Washington Star carried the headline “Syphilis victims in U.S. Study Went Untreated for 40 Years” and Americans learned that their government had been using African-American families in Macon, Georgia as guinea pigs.
The infamous and racist “study” of the effect of untreated syphilis in African-American men was exposed on July 25, 1972 after 40 years of torture for hundreds of Black American men. This “study” affected the men, their community, their partners/wives/lovers and their children. It is one of the many shameful stories of the American government’s ill will towards African-Americans.
The experiment may very well have continued into the 21st century if a young employee had not become a “whistleblower” in 1972. According to information in the book Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, written by White author James H. Jones (published 1993), Peter Buxtun was a 27-year-old employee of the United States Public Health System (USPHS) when in 1966 he discovered that African-Americans in Macon, Georgia were being used as guinea pigs by the American government.
Buxtun wrote a letter to Dr. William J. Brown, director of the Division of Venereal Diseases, “expressing grave moral concerns about the experiment”. Buxtun was told that the affected African-Americans would not receive any treatment to cure them of the disease or even to alleviate their suffering. Even worse, they would not be told that they had syphilis but their lives would be followed by the medical personnel using them as guinea pigs until they died and their bodies autopsied.
Their partners/wives/lovers were infected with the sexually transmitted disease and many of their children were born with congenital syphilis which led to blindness, deformities, developmental delays, damage to bones, teeth, eyes, ears and brain. The untreated syphilis also caused miscarriages, premature births, stillbirths and death of newborn babies.
In November 1966, Buxtun filed an official protest with the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) but the National Medical Association and the American Medical Association agreed with the CDC and Brown that the subjects of the study should not receive treatment but left to deteriorate and eventually die of syphilis and their bodies used for further experimentation.
The medical authorities recruited the African-American men for this horrific “study” by promising them free medical care. None of the men knew that they were infected with the potentially deadly sexually transmitted disease. Penicillin (a cure for syphilis) had been discovered in 1928, three years before the government began their experiment but the authorities refused to allow the African-American men to receive penicillin. By the 1940s penicillin was being widely used and even available in Macon, Georgia but the authorities were determined that the African-American men who were part of their “study” would remain untreated.
During World War II, 250 of the men registered for the draft (to join the military) and would have received treatment for syphilis but the USPHS successfully attained exemption for those men. They were not allowed to join the military and did not receive treatment that would have cured them of syphilis.
The experiment continued in spite of the Henderson Act (1943), a public health law requiring testing and treatment for venereal disease and the Declaration of Helsinki (1964) by the World Health Organization, which specified that “informed consent” was needed for experiments involving human beings.
The Declaration of Helsinki was a follow up to the Nuremberg Code, which was intended to prevent mistreatment of research subjects as had been practised by Nazi physicians. The USPHS was therefore treating the African-American subjects of their experiment in the same manner as the Nazi doctors who experimented on those they considered inferior during the Nazi reign of terror in Germany during World War II and in Namibia from 1904 to 1908.
Even the Surgeon General of the United States was involved in this horrific and inhumane experiment, encouraging the men to remain part of the experiment by sending them certificates of appreciation after 25 years in the “study”. By 1969 (after 37 years of the experiment) 128 of the African-American men were dead from syphilis and its complications (which included tumors, heart disease, paralysis, blindness and insanity), 40 of their wives had been infected and 19 of their children had been born with congenital syphilis.
Buxtun, the eventual “whistleblower” of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, resigned from the USPHS in 1967 and in 1968 filed another protest with the CDC. The authorities at the CDC ignored his concerns and continued their experiment. In 1972 Buxtun spoke to Edith Lederer, a reporter from the Associated Press and on Tuesday, July 25, 1972 the story appeared on the front page of the Washington Star, written by Jean Heller.
The following day, July 26, 1972 the story was published on the front page of the New York Times. On July 27, an official from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) held a press conference where he expressed regret about the length of the experiment.
On August 24, 1972 HEW Assistant Secretary Merlin K. DuVal announced the appointment of the Tuskegee Syphilis Ad Hoc Advisory Panel to investigate the horrific experiment. The advisory panel decided that the Tuskegee Study was “ethically unjustified” and on October 25, 1972 the panel advised that the experiment end.
On November 16, 1972 DuVal announced the end of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. In the summer of 1973, Fred D. Gray, an African-American civil rights lawyer and author of The Tuskegee Syphilis Study: The Real Story and Beyond (published 1998), filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the African-American men and their families who had been duped into becoming experimental “guinea pigs”.
In 1975, the lawsuit was settled for $10 million. As part of the settlement, the U.S. government promised to give lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all living participants. The Tuskegee Health Benefit Program (THBP) was established to provide these services and in 1975, wives, widows and offspring were added to the program.
Following much advocacy and agitation by the African-American community, including the Congressional Black Caucus, U.S. President Clinton agreed to issue an official apology for the racist and inhumane Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. During his apology speech on May 16, 1997, Clinton acknowledged that the experiment was racist:
“To our African-American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist. That can never be allowed to happen again. It is against everything our country stands for and what we must stand against is what it was.”
After 65 years, the American government finally offered some measure of closure for the African-American families who were affected by the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. With the seemingly heartfelt apology from Clinton in 1997 there was hope that nothing like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment would happen again.
The recent scandalous story reported in the Daily Mail (www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2358065/Nearly-250-women-California-prisons-pressured-sterilization-surgeries-took-place-2010.html) of women prisoners being coerced into undergoing surgery to prevent them from bearing children is proof that not much has changed since July 25, 1972 when the story of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was made public.