In 1932, the United States Public Health Service (PHS) in partnership with the Tuskegee Institute began a study in Macon County, Alabama, to examine the effects of untreated syphilis in African American men. PHS workers persuaded 399 African American men with syphilis, and 201 without the disease, to participate in an experiment they were told would provide treatment for “bad blood,” a vague term with many meanings in the rural community.
Nearly all the men were poorly educated, impoverished sharecroppers. In exchange for their participation, they were promised burial stipends, hot meals, and free medical exams. Those with syphilis were not told they were infected and were not treated even after Penicillin was discovered to be an effective cure for the disease in the 1940s. Even local health workers not affiliated with the project were prevented from administering treatment to syphilis-infected individuals participating in the experiment.
In July 1972, the Washington, DC-based Washington Star newspaper published an article exposing details of the experiment, which was still ongoing. The article incited public outrage over the unethical treatment of participants, leading to the experiment’s termination that November. Over the experiment’s 40-year span, 128 participants died of syphilis or syphilis-related complications. In 1973, the NAACP represented survivors in a class action lawsuit. In 1974, the federal government settled the lawsuit for $10 million and agreed to provide survivors and their infected family members with free medical services. It would be another 23 years, however, before the government issued a formal apology for its actions.
Washington Star Newspaper Exposes Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment