The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment: a Shocking Tale of Research

Categories: Science

The function of this paper is to elaborate on the Tuskegee Experiment based upon previous international research study, it will also state the initial research study and where did it come from, the purpose of the research study and the results. It will likewise state who or what were the primary private investigators, the individuals (gender, race, age), why and how did this research study end. The original study of the Tuskegee research study was a dishonest medical experiment carried out in the United States between 1932 and 1972, in which nearly 400 black Americans with syphilis were used no medical treatment, permitting scientists to see the course of the disease.

The events of the Tuskegee research triggered comprehensive worths of legislation, consisting of the National Research study Act, and the experiment attracted an excellent offer of spotlight. Lots of people relate to the Tuskegee Experiment as a very outrageous event in American history, and a number of companies consisting of the Centers for Illness Control have extensive archives on the experiment which are readily available to interested members of the public who desire to discover more about it.

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According to Daniels, N., Kennedy, B. P., & & Kawachi, I. (2007 ). The original study of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment was an infamous scientific research study performed in between 1932 and 1972; it came from in the early 1930s with the goal of checking out the impacts of unthreaded syphilis in black males in the county of Macon, Alabama. Throughout the beginning of the 1900s Macon County's population, as a consequence for its bad educational system and the risky effects of economic anxiety, was made up mostly by illiterate farm employees.

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According to Brandt, A. M. (2010) The U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) carried out an experiment on 399 black males in the late stages of syphilis. It was kept in mind that these males, for the most part illiterate sharecroppers from among the poorest counties in Alabama, were never told what disease they were struggling with or of its seriousness. They were informed that they were being treated for "bad blood," their doctors had no objective of curing them of syphilis at all.

The data for the experiment was to be collected from autopsies of the men, and they were thus deliberately left to degenerate under the ravages of tertiary syphilis which can include tumors, heart disease, paralysis, blindness, insanity, and death. Furthermore, there were so many problems with the Tuskegee Experiment that it is difficult to understand. The architects of the experiment claimed that they were performing valuable research on the disease, but even at the time, many people doubted this, especially after 1947, when penicillin treatment for syphilis became available. The primary value of the study subjects to the researchers from the United States Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute was as autopsy subjects, as they claimed that they were going to prove that untreated syphilis caused extensive cardiac damage in blacks.

Daniels, N., Kennedy, B. P., & Kawachi, I. (2007) stated that, ‘The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American male is the longest no therapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history. During the research, It was noted that the nature of the maltreatment being investigated initially involved 600 black men 399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease. However such expectations only emerged after a few tragically mislead studies caught the attention of academia and of all society itself. Among these works, the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Males is held as one of the main causes for the new institutionalization of ethic. Based on the finding, the lessons taught by the mistakes made by the Tuskegee researchers was applied to all scientific work so that the Study which was a tragic outcome may not be repeated.

The research subjects were very poor black sharecroppers from rural Alabama. The study lacked even the basics of informed consent, with participants being told that they were receiving treatment for “bad blood.” Over the course of the study, the men were periodically called in to receive “treatments” which were actually medical tests used to gauge the severity of their conditions, and the progress of the syphilis was documented by the research team. The men were offered no treatment, and were in fact deliberately denied available syphilis treatments, an action which runs different to the most fundamental of medical principles.

According to Katz, R. V., & Warren, R. C. (2011).It was noted that the study was conducted without the benefit of patients' informed consent. Researchers told the men they were being treated for "bad blood," a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In truth, they did not receive the proper treatment needed to cure their illness. 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. Furthermore, the subjects were given no information about their condition or about treatment options. By the end of the study, in the year of 1972, only seventy-four were still alive; it is estimated that more than a hundred died from advanced syphilis lesions.

Based on eugenic and deterministic affirmations, as well as on the ideas of Social Darwinism, the top researchers considered that male African Americans were the best for such research due to their corrupted morale and excessive sexual desire´, as noted by Allan M. Brant (2009). Joseph E. Moore, a reputed expert in venereal diseases at the time, implied that syphilis in African Americans was an illness almost entirely different from syphilis in the Caucasian population (IESS, p.472).Social outcomes from the Tuskegee Study are observed in the attitudes African American have towards government medical initiatives. Also it was noted that over the course of the study, 40 wives were infected with syphilis, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.

A number of the men died incredibly painful and prolonged deaths as a result of untreated syphilis, and some of the researchers on the program began to doubt its merits. Several whistleblowers independently wrote concerned letters, but the study did not really begin to attract scrutiny until 1972, when a reporter named Jean Heller broke the story in the Washington Star. . These characteristics reflect a specific demographic profile that continues to have the highest morbidity and mortality rates in the United States (Osler, 1994; Satcher et al., 2005). The men in the Syphilis Study were intentionally uninformed and misinformed by federal and state government officials about an experiment in which they were the subjects (Jones, 1981;Katz & Warren, 2011; Reverby, 2000, 2009). Moreover, treatment was systematically denied by federal and state public health officials even after effective treatment was available. (Katz &Warren, 2011). The study continued for more than 40 years, yet no written record to date has been found that can be examined of the intentional misinformation as a part of the approved research protocols (Williams & Williams, 2011).

The men and their families were told that they had “bad blood” (Jones, 1981). Over the years, the men underwent a series of “medical procedures” to collect biologic samples, and they were led to believe that they were being treated for a disease or an adverse medical condition. These violations are consistent with the definition of bioethics as applied ethics focusing on doctor-patient relationships and how changes in the health care system affect it (Daniels, Kennedy, & Kawachi, 2007). The end point of the study was not just the study of the syphilis alone, but it also became, for the African American men, a study after their death so autopsy could be performed (Williams &Williams, 2011). Public health strives to improve quality of life and longevity of populations.

This is in contrast to the endpoint of death for the African American men in the U.S.Public Health Service Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. Thus, the Syphilis Study violated principles and practices of public health ethics as well. During the sxperiment, it was noted that When Americans learned that black men had been allowed to suffer from advanced syphilis without treatment, the public outcry led to a cancellation of the study, along with the prompt passage of several laws designed to spell out fundamental medical ethics which all experiments in the future would be expected to observe. In 1973, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won a nine million dollar lawsuit, using the proceeds to fund medical care for the victims of the experiment. The United States government also agreed to provide lifetime free medical care to the men along with their wives and surviving children. According to Bozeman etal. (2009).

The subjects of study were attracted by the promises of treatment, which was never done, and were never informed of the actual goal of the research nor its results. Denying the right for informed consent is denying the subjects of research of their basic freedom of choice; it is doubtful that as many black males would have accepted to be part of the experiment if they knew the exact conditions they would have to endure for the rest of their lives. This as an act of racial profiling as the gravest charge against the study is the intentional prohibition of treatment for the sick men, a choice that harmed not only the subjects of study but also, as written beforehand, the whole county with the continued presence of syphilis. .Although it took forty years of ³scientific´ studies, the Tuskegee Experiment had no positive outcome for the medical sciences.

Fortunately, the suffering endured by all the men studied was not in vain. The Tuskegee Study set the basis for the reconstruction of the notion of ethics and racism in the practice of medicine. Human experimentation, especially those involving minority populations practices had to be reconsidered after the Tuskegee Experiment gained public attention (Heintzelman2003). It is important to analyze the impacts of the Study upon the work of the social scientists because the influence of social sciences in the ordinary man is just as big as the influence of medicine. Social statistical work can validate certain ideas, like the eugenic theories for example, that might fate a whole society to inequality and prejudice. The problem of informed consent is not restricted to the medical sciences; social experimentation involves manipulating certain conditions of the human nature, which might be harmful to the subjects of study.

Most importantly, the Tuskegee Experiment gave ethics a new stand of importance within the social sciences. In history, the issue of ethical treatment for the members in experiments for the social sciences is related to sharp public reactions to all kinds of studies with human subjects. Studies like the one done in Macon County influenced significant questions about the rights´ of human subjects and the responsibilities. The new standards of conduct for experimental research´ require all scientists to compare the risks for the participants to the possible benefits´ of the research. Furthermore, the social scientist must not focus all attention towards being ethical in the process of research and forget about being ethical with the results for the final results of a study might be harmful to a society as a whole.

The last ethical lesson of the Tuskegee Study is that unethical procedures are present even when no harm is intended. Another proof of the lack of malice in the researcher intentions was the African American doctors belief that the Study represented a chance for the black to proof that it is not inferior to any other race.(Sargent 1997).) However, although no harm was intended the Tuskegee Experiment is an example of lack of ethics in experimentation, showing that good intentions do not secure ethical research. The importance of ethical guidelines for the life in society is clear; a conjunct of values must be present in the social life otherwise it can only lead to chaos. Especially in the scientific field, much the awareness for such importance was born after the Tuskegee Study showed society how tragic can be the results of unethical work. The history of the Study plays a relevant role for the continuous appliance of ethics in scientific research and therefore must never be forgotten.

The teachings of the Tuskegee must serve as an example for all scientific study to come in order to avoid the repetition of unethical scientific practice. It was not until 1997 that the federal government issued a formal apology for the Tuskegee Experiment, in the form of an address from President Bill Clinton. The Tuskegee Experiment continues to rankle with many black Americans, who compare it to the medical experiments performed by Nazis in German concentration camps. Not only was the Tuskegee Experiment morally unconscionable, it was also medically pointless, having no practical value whatsoever, and this makes it all the more shameful. Furthermore, it was noted that in 1979 they published "Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research," which is commonly referred to as "The Belmont Report."

This document presents a well-developed ethical framework for the exploration of the issues associated with the use of human beings as the subjects of research. More comprehensive than the Nuremberg Code, it defined the boundary between accepted therapeutic practice and experimental research, and proposed the following three basic principles to guide in the evaluation of the ethics of research involving human subjects which includes Respect for Persons, Beneficence, and Justice. Respect for Persons incorporates the convictions that individual research subjects should be treated as autonomous agents, and that persons with diminished autonomy (such as prisoners or inmates of mental institutions) are entitled to protection.

Beneficence explained the research involving human subjects should do no intentional harm, while maximizing possible benefits and minimizing possible harms, both to the individuals involved and to society at large. Justice implies as an attention needs to be paid to the equitable distribution within human society of benefits and burdens of research involving human subjects. In particular, those participants chosen for such research should not be inequitably selected from groups unlikely to benefit from the work. The Belmont report has greatly influenced the codes and regulations regarding human subjects’ research that have since been established in the United States by federal and many state governments, universities, professional organizations and by private research institutions, as well as similar codes and regulations elsewhere in the world. In 1997, President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology for the egregious wrongs committed by the U.S. government in the Tuskegee Study.

But the Tuskegee Study's harmful legacy lives on in the African American community. Because the experiment was perpetuated exclusively on African Americans, it has tainted their Relationship with members of the health professions. The Study is cited as one reason why few African Americans participate in clinical research, why they frequently avoid preventative care, and why rumors of government-controlled genocide (e.g., AIDS epidemic, birth control) persist to the present day (Katz et al, 2006). It was further noted that President Barack Obama personally apologized to his Guatemalan counterpart for a US-led study conducted in the 1940s, in which hundreds of people in the Latin American state were deliberately infected with sexually-transmitted diseases. In a phone conversation with Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, Obama expressed his deep regret for the experiment conducted by US public health researchers in Guatemala between 1946 and 1948, and apologized "to all those affected.

"The US president also vowed that all human medical studies conducted today will be held to exacting US and international legal and ethical standards. Furthermore, we hope that the lessons learned from the Syphilis Study and its implications have led to alternative strategies to improve the public’s health, as the health community strives to meet the unique challenges of the 21st century. The lessons learned from the legacy of the Syphilis Study serve as admonition for the United States to actively work against the unethical drive to dismantle the benefits that health reform will have for the underserved and those that are experiencing health disparities, as well as the general U.S. population. Also we commit to increase our community involvement so that we may begin restoring lost trust. The study at Tuskegee served to sow distrust of our medical institutions, especially where research is involved. Since the study was halted, abuses have been checked by making informed consent and local review mandatory in federally funded and mandated research. The people who ran the study at Tuskegee diminished the stature of man by abandoning the most basic ethical precepts. They forgot their pledge to heal and repair. They had the power to heal the survivors and all the others.


  1. Brandt, A. M. ( 2010) Racism and Research: The Case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study´. In Readings for Sociology.6th ed. Garth Massey. 60-71. New York: W.W. Norton &Company.
  2. Daniels, N., Kennedy, B. P., & Kawachi, I. (2007). Why justice is good for our health: The social determinants of health inequalities. In R. Bayer & D. Beauchamp (Eds.), Public health ethics: Theory, policy, and practice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  3. Harter, L. M., Stephens R. J. & Japp P.M. (2000). President Clinton’s Apology for the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment: A Narrative of Remembrance, Redefinition, and Reconciliation. The Howard Journal Of Communications11:19-34.
  4. Heintzelman, C. A. (2003). The Tuskegee Syphilis Study and Its Implications for the21 St Century. ‘The New Social Worker.
  5. Katz, R. V., & Warren, R. C. (2011). The search for the legacy of the USPHS Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. New York, NY: Lexington Books
  6. Reverby, S. M. (2000). Tuskegee’s truths: Rethinking the Tuskegee Syphilis study. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  7. Wayne, A.P., Dale B.H., Ellen, B.L.(2011). Understanding your health. Eleventh Edition
Updated: Nov 20, 2023
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The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment: a Shocking Tale of Research. (2016, Mar 28). Retrieved from

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment: a Shocking Tale of Research essay
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