Author(s): Michael S. Pritchard, Department of Philosophy, Western Michigan University & Theodore Goldfarb, Department of Chemistry, State University of New York at Stony Brook
NOTE: This contribution appeared as a featured resource in the online and printed issues of ENC Focus: A Magazine for Classroom Innovators Vol. 8 no.3, published by the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education-ENC.
In 1932 the PHS decided to proceed with a follow-up study in Macon County. Unlike the project supported by the Rosenwald Fund, the specific goal of the new study was to examine the progression of untreated syphilis in African-Americans. Permission was obtained for the use of the excellent medical facilities at the teaching hospital of the Tuskegee Institute and human subjects were recruited by spreading the word among Black people in the county that volunteers would be given free tests for bad blood, a term used locally to refer to a wide variety of ailments. Thus began what evolved into "The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male," a project that would continue for forty years. The subject group was composed of 616 African-American men, 412 of whom had been diagnosed as having syphilis, and 204 controls.
The participants were never explained the true nature of the study. Not only were the syphilitics among them not treated for the disease -- a key aspect of the study design that was retained even after 1943 when penicillin became available as a safe, highly effective cure -- but those few who recognized their condition and attempted to seek help from PHS syphilis treament clinics were prevented from doing so.
Eunice Rivers, an African-American PHS nurse assigned to monitor the study, soon became a highly trusted authority figure within the subject community. She was largely responsible for assuring the cooperation of the participants throughout the duration of the study. She was aware of the goals and requirements of the study, including the failure to fully inform the participants of their condition and to deny treatment for syphilis. It was her firm conviction that the men in the study were better off because they received superior medical care for ailments other than syphilis than the vast majority of African-Americans in Macon County.
The nature of the Study was certainly not withheld from the nation's medical community. Many venereal disease experts were specifically contacted for advice and opinions. Most of them expressed support for the project. In 1965, 33 years after the Study's initiation, Dr. Irwin Schatz became the first medical professional to formally object to the Study on moral grounds. The PHS simply ignored his complaint. The following year, Peter Buxtin, a venereal disease investigator for the PHS began a prolonged questioning of the morality of the Study. A panel of prominent physicians was convened by the PHS in 1969 to review the Tuskegee study. The panel included neither African-Americans nor medical ethicists. Ignoring the fact that it clearly violated the human experimentation guidelines adopted by the PHS in 1966, the panel's recommendation that the Study continue without significant modification was accepted.
By 1972, Buxtin had resigned from the PHS and entered law school. Still bothered by the failure of the agency to take his objections seriously, he contacted the Associated Press, which assigned reporter Jean Heller to the story. On July 25, 1972 the results of her journalist investigation of the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male were published. The response to Heller's revelations was broad-based public outrage, which finally brought the Study to an immediate end.