Jamala Rodgers: Tuskegee ... The Experiment That Haunts Black Health

Roundup: Talking About History

[BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member Jamala Rogers is the leader of the Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis and the Black Radical Congress National Organizer.]

Thirty-five years ago, the covers were pulled off the Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted by the Macon County Public Health Service (PHS). The 40-year experiment allegedly was set up to study the impact of untreated syphilis on some 600 black men, about 200 in a control group, beginning in 1932.

Although it certainly wasn’t the first or last of racist experiments on black people, historian James Jones and author of Bad Blood has described as "the longest non-therapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history."

In her book, Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington explores the “dark history of medical experimentation on black Americans, from colonial times to the present.” Washington gives numerous examples of lesser-known experiments on black men, women and children by men of science and medicine. In most cases, these men went down in history, decorated and revered for their deadly works.

The notorious Tuskegee “research” was the brainchild of “The Syphilis Men”: Drs. Taliaferro Clark, Oliver Wenger, John Heller and Raymond Vonderlehr. They were the liberal minds of that day, so I can’t imagine what would have happened if the good doctors had been avowed racists. To avoid the racist label, the project needed - and received - the support of a black institution and its prominent doctors. Both Dr. Robert Moton, President of Tuskegee Institute and Dr. Dibble, head of the John Andrew Hospital at the Institute, enthusiastically signed off on the reprehensible project. Dibble proudly anticipated the hospital and the Institute would “get credit for this piece of research work."

There were other notable African-Americans attached to the project. Sociologist Charles Johnson did a study of the county’s black residents, to provide the baseline data for the experiment.

Macon County, Alabama was chosen as the site of the study because of the high rate of the venereal disease as well as the accompanying high rates of illiteracy and poverty. When the black men came to the clinic to be treated and were found to be infected, they were siphoned off to be part of the infamous study for their “bad blood”. The goal was never to treat them but to keep them in the program until death, where their real value would finally pay off with the data collected from the autopsies.

In return for their participation in the study, the men were given free medical exams, free meals and free burial insurance. The word free should definitely be in quotes because there was nothing free here, as many paid the ultimate price.

The symptoms of syphilis in its advanced, untreated stages are general ill feelings, muscle aches, joint pain, enlarged lymph nodes and hair loss. Because the disease affects the cardiovascular and central nervous systems, the men were subject to aneurysms, heart disease, blindness, paralysis, insanity and other debilitating conditions. Even when penicillin was developed as the accepted cure for syphilis in 1947 and even when some of the men enlisted to serve in World War II, treatment was still denied.

Eunice Rivers had a unique role in this shameful project. She is often portrayed as a helpless pawn or it would be said that her behavior was justified for the historical period, i.e. a black nurse did what white doctors told her to do. For me, Nurse Eunice Rivers was the most despicable player in the game.

Rivers was the only one who stayed the duration of the project, choosing to continue even after she retired. She was given the opportunity to take a job in New York City but rejected it, opting instead to be used by the project. Nurse Rivers carried out the invaluable role of winning the trust of the men and their families and keeping them involved through a series of trickery and incentives. She passed on personal and family information to doctors, along with black cultural nuances, to exploit as the study saw fit. She was so trusted that the men would come to her for advice not related to the study....

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