On this dayJul 24, 1972

Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment Exposed by Washington Star Newspaper

Image | Coto Report via New York Times

On July 24, 1972, the Washington Star newspaper in Washington D.C. published an article exposing details of an ongoing syphilis experiment that withheld diagnosis information and treatment from black men in Alabama in order to study the effects of the disease. The article incited public outrage over the unethical treatment of participants, leading to the experiment’s termination later that year.

Forty years earlier, in 1932, the United States Public Health Service (PHS) partnered with the Tuskegee Institute on a study to examine the effects of untreated syphilis in African American men in Macon County, Alabama. PHS workers persuaded 600 African American men -- 399 with syphilis, and 201 without the disease -- to participate in the experiment. They were not given full details about the scope of the study, and were just told they would be receiving treatment for “bad blood” -- a vague term with many meanings in the rural, southern community.

Nearly all of the men studied were poorly educated, impoverished sharecroppers. The study took advantage of their poverty, promising that their participation would be compensated with burial stipends, hot meals, and free medical exams. Those with syphilis were not told they were infected and did not receive treatment, even after Penicillin was discovered to be an effective cure for the disease in the 1940s. Their access to treatment outside of the study was also thwarted, as local health workers not affiliated with the project were prevented from caring for syphilis-infected individuals participating in the experiment.

Over the study's 40-year span, 128 participants died of syphilis or syphilis-related complications. One year after the Washington Star broke the story, the NAACP represented survivors in a class action lawsuit. In 1974, the federal government settled for $10 million and agreed to provide survivors and their infected family members with free medical services. It would take another 23 years, however, for the government to issue a formal apology for its actions.

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