In a Nutshell
In 1932, the United States began a study into the effects of syphilis in black men. In 1940, a cure was discovered. Rather than tell their patients, the study doctors kept it a secret, resulting in the deaths of hundreds.
The Whole Bushel
Eighty-one years ago, US doctors started a long-term experiment to gain much-needed insight into syphilis. Back in 1932, the disease was an unstoppable killer, devastating communities and killing millions each year. The Tuskegee Study recruited 399 infected black men in return for free healthcare. It became an ethical minefield almost immediately.
From the beginning, the nature of their illness was kept from the patients. They were told they had “bad blood” and given placebos to combat it. The reason for this is grim: the researchers were less interested in curing the men and more interested in simply watching them die. So when penicillin was found to cure syphilis in the early ’40s, the results were kept from the study participants.
The result was regular people dying from a painful, treatable illness. When some doctors tried to question the ethics of this, they were told America needed the corpses for autopsy. The program had to continue until every single patient had died—even as the participants found themselves disfigured or driven mad by the infection.
It wasn’t until 1972 that the experiment was made public, by which point the families of dozens of patients had been infected. In response to the backlash, the government publicly apologized and paid $9 million in compensation. But by then the damage had been done. Tuskegee was nothing short of an almighty screw-up, one that set back race relations by decades.