Tuskegee Syphilis Study: 9 things to know

As the COVID-19 vaccine arrives in communities across the U.S., some members of racial minority communities, particularly Black Americans, are issuing hesitancy over receiving it.

Some of that hesitancy can be linked back to a history within the health care system of mistreating Black people, especially when it comes to medical advancements and testing.

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One example of that is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Here are nine things to know about the study and its impact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

1. According to the CDC, the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” started in 1932 when the Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute, began a study to record the natural history of syphilis in hopes of justifying treatment programs for Black people.

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2. The study initially involved 600 Black men in Macon County, Alabama, including 399 with syphilis and 201 who did not have the disease. The CDC said the study was conducted without the benefit of patients’ informed consent.

3. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals and burial insurance. Although originally projected to last 6 months, the study actually went on for 40 years.

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4. The CDC said researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia and fatigue. But in reality, the CDC said, the men did not receive the proper treatment needed to cure their illness.

5. In 1972, the CDC said an ad hoc Advisory Panel concluded that the men had agreed freely to be examined and treated. However, there was no evidence that researchers had informed them of the study or its real purpose. In fact, the men had been misled and had not been given all the facts required to provide informed consent.

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6. The panel concluded that the men were never given adequate treatment for their disease. The CDC said even when penicillin became the drug of choice for syphilis in 1947, researchers did not offer it to the men involved in the study. The advisory panel found nothing to show that subjects were ever given the choice of quitting the study, even when the new, highly-effective treatment became widely used.

7. The advisory panel concluded that the Tuskegee Study was “ethically unjustified.” They said the knowledge gained was sparse when compared with the risks the study posed for its subjects. In October 1972, the panel advised stopping the study at once.

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8. In the summer of 1973, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the study participants and their families. In 1974, a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached. As part of the settlement, the U.S. government promised to give lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all living participants.

9. The last study participant died in January 2004. The last widow receiving THBP benefits died in January 2009. There are 11 offspring currently receiving medical and health benefits.


Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.