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The most infamous page in the history of medical experiments in the United States

The most infamous page in the history of medical experiments in the United States 1
Photo: The National Archives

The story of one very scary and long-term study conducted by people in white coats in the United States. The story of how, disregarding medical ethics, doctors put the acquisition of knowledge above saving human life.

Photo: The National Archives / Some of the participants in the experiment
Photo: The National Archives / Some of the participants in the experiment

It is the year 1932. The fight against syphilis is in full swing. A cure for this venereal disease has not yet been discovered; in many countries of the world, the level of syphilis prevalence remains high. US doctors start a hidden experiment, the purpose of which is:

  • document the course of the disease in black people;
  • identify differences in the signs of syphilis in whites and blacks;
  • to monitor the progression of venereal disease in the selected group.

Simply put, the doctors wanted to know how syphilis would develop in African Americans if left untreated.

At that time in the United States there was still strong prejudice and false beliefs that people with dark skin were more prone to sexually transmitted infections than others. Therefore, the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) turned its attention to blacks.

The choice fell on Macon County, Alabama, where an estimated 35% of the population was infected with syphilis. In Tuskegee, a mostly black town, doctors distributed leaflets that read :

“Free blood test. Free treatment from the county health department and government doctors. Come yourself and bring the whole family.”

Hundreds of dark-skinned poor people between the ages of 25 and 60 have made appointments with doctors. All of them were promised free medical examinations, free meals and free help from doctors in the treatment of “bad blood” (a local term that was used to refer to various ailments).

In total, the doctors recruited 600 male “volunteers”, of whom 399 had syphilis and 201 did not; the latter were taken as a control group. The subjects were not warned that they became participants in the experiment, they were not told that they had a sexually transmitted disease, they were not given any recommendations that would help prevent the spread of syphilis, and, most importantly, no one was going to treat these people throughout the study.

The medics tried to create the illusion in the test subjects that they were being helped. All African Americans were given a placebo: ointments and capsules with a small dose of arsenic and mercury (in those days, syphilis patients were treated with drugs containing mercury and arsenic).

Photo: wikipedia / Unidentified person administers a placebo to one of the victims of the Tuskegee study, 1932
Photo: wikipedia / Unidentified person administers a placebo to one of the victims of the Tuskegee study, 1932

If patients stopped seeing a doctor, the US Public Health Service attempted to bring them back to participate in the experiment. To such subjects a dark-skinned nurse was sent named Eunice Rivers, who delivered them hot meals and medicines, thereby bribing patients with things especially valuable during the Great Depression – the economic crisis in the United States (1929-1939). A dark-skinned woman was specially selected as a nurse to give patients more confidence in the Department of Health.

It was extremely important for the researchers that none of the 399 test subjects were able to receive outside medical care throughout the experiment. So, for example, in 1934, the initiators of a covert experiment sent out lists with the names of 399 subjects to all Macon County doctors, and asked them not to treat these people for syphilis. The same was done in 1940, only this time the lists with the names were sent to the Alabama Department of Health. In 1941, many of the black male participants in the experiment were drafted into the army. During the medical examination, they were diagnosed with syphilis, when they found out about this in the USPHS, they asked the commission to give the men a reprieve and not to provide any assistance.

The dead bodies of the infected were of greatest value to doctors, so when the subject died, the USPHS covered the costs of the funeral. Thus, doctors gained access to the corpse, performed an autopsy and studied the body to find out what a devastating effect the disease had on the body.

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Penicillin and international documents

By 1947, it became known that with the help of penicillin (an antibiotic), you can successfully treat syphilis. The USPHS has opened several centers in the United States for the rapid treatment of syphilis. However, the organization was in no hurry to give its 399 experimental subjects the antibiotic and in every possible way prevented the subjects from getting it from other hands.

Photo: The National Archives / Experiment participant
Photo: The National Archives / Experiment participant

In 1947, the Nuremberg Code was created, which regulated “the principles of medical experiments on humans .” A little later, in 1964, the World Medical Association developed and published the Declaration of Helsinki – “Ethical Standards for Physicians Regarding Human Experiment and Research Ethics.”

These two documents were safely ignored by the USPHS and continued their covert experiments on African Americans. It was only after informant Peter Buxtun leaked the study to the New York Times in 1972 and the newspaper published a front page article about the experiment that the USPHS stopped the experiment. By this time, only 74 people remained alive; 128 subjects died from syphilis or its complications; 40 women – wives of patients, contracted syphilis during the study, 19 children contracted syphilis in the womb.


When the public learned of what had happened, massive disturbances began. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a lawsuit against the US Public Health Service for $ 10 million. Two years later, the NAACP won the lawsuit, and the USPHS agreed to provide free medical care to all surviving participants in the experiment and their families.

1974 US Congress passed a law on scientific research; the USPHS created the Human Research Regulatory Authority. President Bill Clinton in 1997made a formal apology to the surviving eight participants in the syphilis study in Tuskegee and held a ceremony for them.

Photo: The New York Times / One of the surviving participants in the experiment Herman Schau and US President Clinton in 1997
Photo: The New York Times / One of the surviving participants in the experiment Herman Schau and US President Clinton in 1997

The last test subject died in January 2004. The last widow to receive special benefits died in January 2009. Children born during the experiment, currently 10 people remain, continue to receive medical and health benefits.

The medical experiment that took place in Tuskegee from 1932 to 1972 did not bring any scientific benefit, only undermined the confidence of the black community in US health care. Some American researchers call it “a shameful page in the history of the United States.”

None of the doctors who conducted the experiment and observed 399 infected black men were ever punished.


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