Not many people, both in the US and around the world, know about the secret medical experiments the US government conducted on its own citizens, without their consent, for 40 years, and resulted in the deaths of many of the participants of those experiments.
The Tuskegee experiment was a notorious medical research project involving hundreds of poor African-American men that took place from 1932 to 1972 in Macon County, Alabama.
The men in the study had syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection, but didn’t know it. Instead they were told they had “bad blood” and given placebos, even after the disease became treatable with penicillin in the 1940s.
Participants in the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment.
The Tuskegee experiment began at a time when there was no known treatment for syphilis. After being recruited by the promise of free medical care, 600 men originally were enrolled in the project.
The participants were primarily sharecroppers, and many had never before visited a doctor. Doctors from the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), which was running the study, informed the participants—399 men with latent syphilis and a control group of 201 others who were free of the disease—they were being treated for bad blood, a term commonly used in the area at the time to refer to a variety of ailments.
The men were monitored by health workers but only given placebos such as aspirin and mineral supplements, despite the fact penicillin became the recommended treatment for syphilis in 1947. PHS researchers convinced local physicians in Macon County not to treat the participants.
In order to track the disease’s full progression, researchers provided no effective care as the men died, went blind or insane or experienced other severe health problems due to their untreated syphilis.
Peter Buxton, a PHS venereal disease investigator in San Francisco, leaked the story to a reporter friend, who passed it on to a fellow reporter, Jean Heller of the Associated Press. Heller broke the story in July 1972, prompting public outrage and forcing the study to shut down.
By that time, 28 participants had perished from syphilis, 100 more had passed away from related complications, at least 40 spouses had been diagnosed with it and the disease had been passed to 19 children at birth.
In part to foster racial healing, President Clinton issued a presidental apology in 1997, stating:
“The United States government did something that was wrong—deeply, profoundly, morally wrong… 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.”
President Clinton's full presidental apology in 1997.
As a result of the Tuskegee experiment, many African Americans developed a lingering, deep mistrust of public health officials which lasts up untill present times, and frankly, no one can blame them for that.
The Tuskegee experiment is also a healthy reminder not to blindly trust what you're being told by your government about diseases and how to treat them.