Tuskegee Syphilis Study Essay

Submitted By SMcCray618
Words: 1358
Pages: 6

The United States government promised 399 African American men free treatments for syphilis in 1932. All of the 399 men included in the study were sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama. Researchers involved decided not to inform the participants that they were infected, they did not offer the men counseling, nor did they give them treatment throughout the 40 year old study”. The men eventually became part of the most infamous biomedical research study “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (Walker, 2009).”
In the first couple of months the men were given unbeneficial low doses of both bismuth and mercurial ointment. They helped a little but they were actually quite toxic. These men were uninformed and deceived throughout the study. The study took place during the Depression Era, promising men hot meals on exam days, transportation to town, free care for minor sicknesses, and a $50 burial insurance policy. By the mid-1940s, Penicillin was the treatment for syphilis. However the government refused to let any of the participants have access to it, stating that they “would never find such a group of untreated individuals (Millsap & Burch, 1999).” The harmful legacy of the study still lives on this day in the African American community. Because many African Americans were the main target of this experiment, it is said to be one of the reasons as to why few participate in clinical research trials and is one of the main reasons as to why the relationship with health professions are tainted. In 1990, the government conducted a survey which found that at least 10 percent of African American thought the government created AIDS as a plot to exterminate blacks and another 20 percent were undecided (Brunner, 2007). Mistrust of doctors, scientists, and the government was reported consistently by the study participants. Many participants described concerns about the ethical conduct of both doctors and investigators when poor or minority patients are involved and mentioned examples of abuse as supporting evidence for their mistrust of the medical establishment. Few participants understood the concept of informed consent. Participants saw signing the document as surrendering their independence and as a legal protection for physicians.
The Tuskegee study started multiple investigations to review existing federal regulations targeting the protection of research subjects (Brunner, 2007). In 1974, the government created the National Commission for the protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research and also helped to create the National Research Act. This act created the establishment of the Institutional Review Boards for institutions receiving federal grants to conduct clinical research studies. The IRB reviews the grants to determine if the selected participants are unbiased and helps to protect the rights and welfare of human subjects. In my own opinion, I believe that the study was both morally and ethically wrong. The fact that there were doctors and scientists involved is even worst. In my opinion, one of the major ethical failing involved the lack of informed consent. Study participants were not told what their condition was, the purposes of the study, and importantly, of the availability of effective treatment from the 1940s on. In fact the information they were given was frankly misleading, including being told that lumbar punctures they received were therapeutic, rather than for non-beneficial data collecting. The consequences of the Tuskegee study included not only missed opportunities for treatment for participants, but also placing the families and partners at risk. As the study subjects were all black, it has created deep distrust of medical officials among some in the black community, effects of which are still being felt today.


Brunner, B. (1997, 05 16). The tuskegee syphilis experiment.