Psych Bites: Tuskegee Syphilis Study

In 1895, Booker T. Washington outlined his dream for economic development for the ethnic minority community. Over the subsequent years, this led to funding into the development of schools, factories, businesses and agriculture. Around the late 1920’s, there was a severe problem with Syphilis. In 1929, the disease was treated with mercury and bismuth and only had a cure rate of 30%.

This led to the funding of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study bu the US Public Health Service. The purpose of this study was to record the progression of syphilis in the hopes of justifying treatment programmes for African-Americans. The official name of the study was “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”.

At the beginning of the study in 1932, 600 black men were involved; 399 of these already had syphilis and 201 did not. Participants were told that they would be treated for “bad blood”, a local term used to describe several ailments such as syphilis, anaemia and fatigue.

Participants did not actually receive proper treatment for their condition. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals and burial insurance. The study was originally supposed to last 6 months but went on for 40 years.

In 1936, the study published a major paper on the health effects of untreated Syphilis. The study was criticised as it was not known if the men were being treated, this led to the involvement of local physicians who were told by the researchers not to treat men. Decision was made to follow the men until death.

In 1945, penicillin was found to be a successful treatment for syphilis. However, the participants of this study were left untreated despite “Rapid Treatment Centers” being established for the treatment of syphilis. It wasn’t until 1972 that the study ended.

Following the termination of the experiment, the surviving participants were given treatment for the disease. By the end of this study 28 people had died from the disease, 100 had died from related diseases and 40 spouses and 19 children had also been infected as a result of this research.

In 1974, a $10 million settlement was reached as well as lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all living participants. The Tuskegee Health Benefit Program was established to provide these services. A year later wives, widows and offspring were added to the programme.

In 1997, President Clinton issued a public apology on behalf of the nation. The final participant of the research passed away in 2004.

This research is an important marker in ethical procedures as it is a perfect illustration of why we need to have ethical principles for research in order to stop things like this occurring. As it is such an important piece of research I wanted to have this included in my psych bites feature on my blog, what are your thoughts on this?

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