(NaturalNews) It is one of the most shameful experiences in our nation's history -- government experimentation on African-Americans in the guise of syphilis research.
As noted by Alan Bellows at the Damn Interesting blog, the medical community in general had few tools in its arsenal to battle syphilis, a crippling affliction that, at the time, was spreading quickly in certain areas of the world, particularly areas of great poverty. "Even for those who could afford medical care," Bellows wrote, "the only known treatments rivaled the disease itself in the harm they did to sufferers."
In 1932, Dr. Taliaferro Clark of the United States Public Health Service (PHS) -- a uniformed federal health agency overseen by the U.S. Surgeon General -- launched a study in Macon County, Alabama, to document the progression of what had become a very troublesome sexually transmitted disease. It was a region that was home to scores of poverty-stricken, largely illiterate black farmers; cases there had reached great proportions:
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study was undertaken in the hopes that a deeper understanding of syphilis would provide new insights on potential treatments, and possibly justify a government-funded treatment program. But from these noble beginnings, a lack of funds and a shortage of ethics led to one of the most shameful clinical mishaps in US history.
Syphilis, which is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, is one of the more dangerous sexually transmitted diseases; if left untreated, it can cause substantial health problems such as damage to the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. In extreme cases, it can cause difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, mental illness and even death.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study was launched in cooperation with a hospital at the Tuskegee Institute, a black university founded by Booker T. Washington, a national African-American leader, educator, author and presidential adviser in the 19th and early 20th century (who died in Tuskegee in 1915).
The PHS did not provide residents with many details of the study or its purpose, but officials offered a daily meal and free medical treatment to anyone who participated, in addition to a $50 burial stipend for anyone who agreed to allow an autopsy in the event that they died during the study.
"To the men who labored in the fields every day and paid rent on the land with a share of their crops, this offer was extremely appealing," wrote Bellows. "Six hundred volunteers were accepted for the study, including 201 healthy men in the control group and 399 who tested positive for syphilis."
Keeping it all secret
The catch: There were no funds available to provide any useful medication to participants, so researchers could do little more than watch as the disease progressed in those who were afflicted. They reasoned that, as long as they did no harm to the patients, the study's methodology was justified by the knowledge that it would produce for the whole of Mankind.
But, as Bellows, notes, "Almost immediately, however, these noble goals buckled under the weight of misguided research." Doctors decided not to disclose the seriousness of the disease to the volunteers, instead informing them that they required treatment for an equivocal sickness which they referred to as "bad blood." Researchers instead provided sick participants with daily aspirin and doses of iron supplements under the guise that those were more potent medications.
The deception caused Dr. Clark to retire from the project shortly after it was launched, but the remaining research team stayed in place. Bellows wrote further:
Under the care of nurse Eunice Rivers-- an African American nurse who had trained at Tuskegee-- blood samples were periodically taken from participants. They were also subjected to occasional spinal taps, a test where the... spinal column is punctured by a large needle to collect a sample of cerebrospinal fluid. This "golden needle treatment" offered no health benefits to the patients, in fact it often triggered severe headaches and nausea, and there was a small risk of disability or death. But the researchers deemed it necessary in order to test for indications of neurosyphilis.
In the end, many study participants died; "autopsies revealed a wide range of syphilis complications, including leaky heart valves, burst aortas, skeletal tumors, degenerated spinal cords, and brain damage." And researchers refused to turn over the cure -- penicillin -- to their patients, in the interest of research and science.