Date: Mon, 6 Oct 97 09:22:35 CDT
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Brian Hauk)
Subject: Syphilis `Study' On Blacks Was Atrocity
Organization: InfoMatch Internet - Vancouver BC
Syphilis `Study' On Blacks Was Atrocity
Susan Lamont, in The Militant, Vol. 61, no. 34
6 October 1997
BAD BLOOD: the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment - a tragedy
of race and medicine, by James H. Jones. 272 pp. New York:
The Free Press, 1981. $14.95
"It was one of the worst atrocities ever reaped on
people by the government. You don't treat dogs that way."
- Albert Julkes, whose father was a participant in the
government project called the Tuskegee Study of Untreated
Syphilis in the Negro Male.
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - This excellent book chronicles the
history of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Author James
Jones explains how from 1932 - 72, Black sharecroppers and
day laborers were victims in a federally-financed racist
"study." This once-buried chapter of Black and working-class
history was again in the news earlier this year, when
President William Clinton issued a formal apology to the
survivors of the 40-year experiment at a White House ceremony
on May 16.
Henry Foster, a Black physician who was derailed from
approval as Clinton's nominee for Surgeon General in 1995,
served as chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Tuskegee
Institute's John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital from 1965 - 73.
He claimed he knew nothing about this atrocity during that
time. Foster also served as president of the Macon County
Medical Society in 1970.
In Bad Blood, Jones explained how the Tuskegee
experiment began at Andrew Hospital in 1932. "The germ that
causes syphilis, the stages of the disease's development, and
the complications that can result from untreated syphilis
were all known to medical science" at that time, he noted.
The program, however, was a direct outgrowth of a series
of experimental venereal disease control clinics carried out
in six southern states, including Macon County, Alabama, that
started in 1930. The clinics were set up by the U.S. Public
Heath Service (PHS).
Nearly 400 Black men infected with syphilis went
untreated for decades in the experiment conducted there.
Another 200 men who were supposedly free of the disease
served as "controls." The men were not told they had
syphilis, which can cause mental illness and death. Medical
officials told them they would receive free medical treatment
for what they called "bad blood." They were never treated for
the disease, even after penicillin was found to be a
successful cure in the mid 1940s.
"They just kept saying I had the bad blood - they never
mentioned syphilis to me, not even once," said syphilis
experiment survivor Charles Pollard in 1972, the year the
Jim Crow South
"Macon County has been economically depressed throughout
the twentieth century," Jones stated. It is located in east
central Alabama, 30 miles east of the state capital
Montgomery, in a southern region called the "black belt"
because of the rich dark soil. Cotton was the county's main
crop, produced mainly by Black sharecroppers, who eked out a
meager existence by farming white property owners' land in
return for a share of the crop they produced. The census of
1930 listed Macon County's population at just over
27,000 - some 82 percent of whom were Black.
This was the Jim Crow South, under which Blacks were
denied citizenship rights; including the right to own land,
to vote, or to compete for jobs on an equal basis with white
Enforced by government action and Ku Klux Klan terror,
Blacks in the South were denied access to decent housing,
education, health care, jobs, and much more. All these
conditions were worsened by the Great Depression, which began
in 1929, and hit the already impoverished rural areas the
Widespread venereal disease
At the time, venereal disease was widespread, especially
among the poorest workers and farmers. When the Tuskegee
experiment began, the rate of syphilis among the Black
population of Macon County was 36 percent. Tuskegee had the
nation's highest rate of syphilis at the time. The treatment
for syphilis that then existed was difficult and
expensive - a combination of mercury and arsenic compounds
that usually took more than a year to administer, often with
severe and even fatal side effects for the patient.
Venereal disease was not the only health problem the
Black sharecroppers of Macon County faced. Pellagra (a
disease caused by a deficiency of Vitamin B), and the effects
of chronic malnutrition, hookworm and other parasites,
typhoid fever and other diseases fostered by lack of basic
sanitation, such as running water and indoor plumbing, were
Few rural toilers, especially those who were Black, had
access to medical care of any kind; many lived their entire
lives without ever seeing a doctor except in the most dire
emergencies - and not always then. This, in part, explains
the willingness of the Black tenant farmers of Macon County
and the other sites to cooperate with the "government
doctors," as the PHS doctors were called.
Those who came to the clinic to have their blood tested
to see if they needed treatment for syphilis were not told
what disease they had or how it could be controlled and
treated. As Dr. H.L. Harris, Jr., a Black physician reported
after a visit to Macon County, explained in Bad Blood, "The
people were entirely ignorant of the character of the disease
for which they were being treated, the reports submitted
stating that one's blood was bad, in which case he should
report to treatments at the designated center, or that the
test showed that one's blood was all right, in which case no
treatment was necessary." Many of those who knew they needed
medical help for one or another condition but who didn't
happen to have syphilis were sent away, being told their
blood was all right.
Under the impact of the civil rights movement and the
broad radicalization of the 1960s that widened concern for
human rights, the experiment began to run into trouble. Some
doctors began to grow fearful that news of the study would
inevitably reach the general public, resulting in damage to
the PHS's reputation.
On July 25, 1972, the Washington Star carried a story on
the experiment after a young PHS investigator - one of
several young health workers seeking to end the study
informed an Associated Press reporter. The experiment finally
A year later, the surviving victims sued the government
in a class action suit that was settled out of court in
December 1974. "The plaintiffs agreed to drop further action
in exchange for cash payment of $37,000 to every `living
syphilitic' who was alive on July 23, 1973," the settlement
Heirs of those who had died also received some
compensation, as did the men who served as "controls" and
their heirs. The government also agreed to provide free
medical care for the survivors and their families.
The book noted a review of the study's statistics in
1969 showed that at least 28 and perhaps as many as 100 men
died as a direct result of complications caused by syphilis.
Other people had developed serious syphilis-related heart
conditions that may have contributed to their deaths.
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