The U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) completed a study in 1928 and found that 25% of black employees of the Delta Pine and Land Company of Mississippi had syphilis. The Julius Rosenwald Fund (a charity based in Chicago) approached PHS at this time to discuss ways to improve the health of blacks in the South as during this time period, blacks had almost no access to health care.
The two organizations then began collaborating on treating these employees; the treatment program expanded to include five counties in five other states: (Albemarle County) Virginia, (Glynn County) Georgia, (Macon County) Alabama, (Pitt County) N. Carolina and (Tipton County) Tennessee. While the treatment program was still being set up, the stock market crash occurred and The Great Depression began. The Rosenwald fund had to withdraw due to lack of money and the PHS did not have the money to implement treatment.
During this period, there was a debate in health circles about possible variation of the effects of syphilis based on race. A Dr. Taliaferro Clark of the PHS thought that the doomed project might be “salvaged” by conducting a study on the effects of untreated syphilis on living subjects. His suggestion was adopted.
The PHS asked the Tuskeegee Institute for assistance with this project as its participation would increase the likelihood of blacks continuing to participate in the “study”, based on its reputation in the black community. The PHS gave money, training for interns and employed Tuskeegee nurses. The PHS also recruited local black church and community leaders as well as plantation owners to encourage participation.
The blacks who participated in the study, like their neighbors, had virtually no access to medical care. This was the first physical examination they had ever received. They also got food and transportation. Burial stipends were given to family members in exchange for permission to perform autopsies on participants. Although the participants got the physical exams, not one was told that they had syphilis. Not one was treated at a level sufficient to cure the disease.
Over time, PHS officials also prevented other agencies from supplying treatment. During WWII, about 50 of the subjects were ordered by the local draft board to obtain treatment for syphilis. The PHS requested that the boards exclude the study subjects from this requirement; and the draft boards agreed. In 1943, the PHS began to give syphilis patients penicillin to cure it. Study subjects were excluded. The PHS began to use local health departments to try and find study subjects who had left Macon County, Georgia. Until the study ended in 1970, these local health departments worked with the PHS to keep the study subjects from ever getting treatment for their syphilis.
In 1972 Peter Burton, who worked for the PHS as a venereal disease investigator finally blew the whistle to an AP reporter. He had been protesting the study within PHS since 1966. The story appeared on front pages around the country. The Tuskeegee Syphilis Study remains one of the most horrifying and outrageous examples of blatant disregard of basic ethical principles of conduct. James Jones (historian) interviewed John Heller in 1976. John Heller had been director of the Venereal Diseases Unit of the PHS during the years 1943-1948.
One of his remarks was: ”The men’s status did not warrant ethical debate. They were subjects, not patients; clinical material, not sick people”.
As a footnote, this study generated (obviously) a lot of fear and distrust of the U.S. government among blacks. The SCLC has been providing AIDS awareness education for years. A study was conducted in 1990 among over 1000 black Church members in five cities. 34% believed AIDS is an artificial virus; 35% believed AIDS is a form of genocide; and 44% believed that the government is not telling the truth about AIDS.
The bulk of this information was largely derived from a book written by James Jones in 1981 entitled Bad blood: The Tuskegee syphilis experiment: A tragedy of race and medicine. NY: The Free Press.