In honor of Juneteenth, I thought it would be prudent to shine a light on the injustices and hardships faced by our black communities. In particular, I want to focus on an experiment conducted in the United States that resulted in one of the most vile miscarriages of ethics seen in modern research. Today, let’s examine the Tuskegee study.
In 1932, the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) began their study at Tuskegee Institute (Now known as Tuskegee University), to examine the effects of syphilis over the lifecourse. 600 black males (399 with advanced syphilis and 201 without) were recruited for the study (CDC, 2021; Emanuel, 2008). They were told that they had “bad blood,” a colloquial term used to describe several medical conditions, and offered free treatment, food, and burial insurance if they participated in their study. Though they were told that they would be receiving treatment, in actuality the experimenters withheld treatment in order to study the long-term effects of the bacteria (CDC, 2021).
By 1943, penicillin, the first antibiotic, had become widely available and was often used in the treatment of syphilis. Knowing that this treatment was available, the USPHS refrained from curing the participants of Tuskegee in order to continue their experiment (CDC, 2021). In fact, when the CDC audited the study in 1969, they decided that it should be continued without reservation. It was not until 1972, when the Associated Press published a story to the public about the atrocities at Tuskegee, that the experiment was concluded. By this time, only 74 of the study participants remained alive, many of the others having died from complications due to advanced syphilis (Brandt, 2018).
Following the Tuskegee experiment the United States and many other countries made great strides in ensuring contemporary research is humane.International Review Boards (IRBs), a national ethics commission, have been established and they must approve that every experiment is conducted ethically (Parija et al., 2011).
I’d like to take a minute here to address the long-term effects this study and others like it have had on the black experience in America. The Tuskegee study lives on in the black community as a painful reminder of the structural racism ingrained in American culture. It is no wonder why many Black Americans avoid healthcare services and distrust medicine to this day. Rebuilding this trust has been and will continue to be an arduous task, but is an incredibly important endeavor to ensure that all Americans get the help and care they deserve.
While the establishment of Juneteenth as a national holiday is a positive step in acknowledging the mistreatment of black people in the United States, it falls short of truly attending to the structural inequities that continue to impact the black community.