Tech UPTechnologyTuskegee: The Most Infamous Experiment in History

Tuskegee: The Most Infamous Experiment in History

Syphilis Study Group researchers recruited 600 African-American sharecroppers from Acon County, Alabama, of whom 399 had contracted syphilis. The doctors informed them that they would be treated for “bad blood” for free and that, in addition, they would be provided with food on the days they were examined at the hospital of the historic Tuskegee University, then the Tuskegee Institute, which educated African American youth. They were also told that if they died the government would pay for their burial, as long as they agreed to an autopsy. It is not surprising that in the conditions of extreme poverty in which these men lived, they accepted without flinching. The reality, of which they were never informed, is that they were going to let them die of syphilis in order to understand the evolution in all its phases of the disease among African Americans.

Neither the different researchers who took part in different phases of the experiment (including the African-American nurse Eunice Rivers, who participated from the beginning until its cancellation) nor the government organizations that financed it (the Department of Health and the famous Center for Disease Control, CDC) raised any ethical dilemma. Although it is true that at the time the study began, the treatment of this venereal disease was a painful and life-threatening process for the patient, in 1947 it was known that penicillin was very effective against this disease. But still they did not administer it to any of the ironically named patients . 

In 1966 an epidemiologist and social worker, Peter Buxtun, wrote a formal protest about the unethical nature of this experiment, but the CDC reaffirmed the need to continue it; To give more weight to his decision, he obtained the support of the local chapters of the National Medical Association (an organization that brings together the majority of African-American doctors) and the American Medical Association. Two years later, he filed a formal complaint again, which was dismissed as irrelevant . Tired, in mid-1972 he leaked the news to the Washington Star and in early July the news became the front page of all the media. Thus ended a scientific study that allowed the death of 325 men, several dozen infected wives and many children born with congenital syphilis . The trial held in 1974 ordered the government to pay 10 million dollars to the survivors and the families of the deceased.

But the absolute lack of empathy of the medical managers of the venereal diseases section of the North American health system did not stop here. Between 1946 and 1948, in collaboration with high-ranking Gutemaltecan officials, they deliberately infected 1,500 people with syphilis , including soldiers, inmates, and psychiatric patients in that Central American country. For this they used already infected prostitutes and direct injections of the pathogen . The study, whose objective was to establish the effectiveness of penicillin as a treatment, was directed by John C. Cutler, a doctor who had participated in the Tuskegee study, and had the approval of the National Advisor of Health of the US government .

If in the Tuskegee case the doctors were not aware of doing something morally reprehensible, here the doctors involved were aware of it, because they kept it secret and never published the results . The whole thing was uncovered in 2005 when Wellesley College professor Susan Mokotoff Reverby found numerous documents relating to this vile experiment in the private files of the recently deceased Cutler. In 2010, the US president made an act of public contrition by asking the Guatemalan government for forgiveness, but to date he has not financially compensated the survivors. It is the price to pay for not being American.


Gray, Fred D. (1998). The Tuskegee Syphilis Study: The Real Story and Beyond .

Montgomery, New South Books; and Jones, James H. (1981). Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Free Press 

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