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Date: Mon, 6 Oct 97 09:22:35 CDT
From: bghauk@berlin.infomatch.com (Brian Hauk)
Subject: Syphilis `Study' On Blacks Was Atrocity
Organization: InfoMatch Internet - Vancouver BC
Article: 19386

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 study ended.

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 workers.

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 hardest.

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 also widespread.

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 ended.

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 stated.

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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