The Tuskegee Experiment was a 40-year research project that studied the effects of the disease syphilis when left untreated. Black rural farm workers were the subjects of the U.S. government-sponsored study and were kept in the dark as they were being left to suffer. A whistleblower revealed the unethical and morally unjust aims of the study after he went to the press in 1972.
For four decades, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) studied the effects of the untreated disease in 600 Black men from Macon County, Ala. Starting in 1932, 399 of the 600 sharecroppers to be studied were already afflicted with the venereal disease. The farmers were led to believe that they were being treated for “bad blood,” a term used to describe a number of unknown ailments. The Tuskegee Institute, also in Alabama, was the site where the study took place.
The disease spread to the families of the men in a devastating fashion. By the end of the experiments, 28 men died from the disease, another 100 died from complications related to the disease, 40 of the wives contracted syphilis, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.
After several years, a foundation in New York has apologized for its role in the infamous experiment. The Milbank Memorial Fund said its role was to pay for the funeral expenses of the deceased men, up to $100, if their widows agreed to an autopsy allowing doctors to further study the bodies of their dead husbands, the Associated Press reported.
The fund’s apology came with a donation to Voices of our Fathers Legacy Foundation, a descendants’ group. The Milbank Memorial Fund said it became part of the study in 1935 after the U.S. surgeon general at the time, Hugh Cumming, asked it to. Milbank gave a total of $20,150 for about 234 autopsies, according to a study by historian Susan M Reverby.
Christopher F. Koller, president of the Fund, said there is no justification for what happened. “The upshot of this was real harm,” he told the Associated Press.
In 1972 when Peter Buxtun, a White PHS venereal disease researcher, got the insidious nature of the study out to the public by way of the Washington Star, Sen. Edward Kennedy called several Congressional hearings over the matter, which Buxtun and other researchers testified. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a class-action lawsuit, which was later settled for $9 million. The settlement also included free treatment to the surviving study patients and their families.
In 1974, Congress passed the National Research Act, which helped develop guidelines for human medical research and was sparked by the findings at Tuskegee. On May 16, 1997, then-President Bill Clinton apologized to the study participants and their families, calling the act “racist.”