50 years on, the lessons of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study still reverberate

Dr. Walter Edmondson of PHS draws a blood sample from a Tuskegee study participant in Milstead, Macon County, Georgia, 1953.

Enlarge / Dr. Walter Edmondson of PHS draws a blood sample from a Tuskegee study participant in Milstead, Macon County, Georgia, 1953. (credit: National Archives/Public domain)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of The New York Times’ exposé of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, thanks to a frustrated social worker who tipped off the press. By the time it broke in 1972, experiments had been conducted on unsuspecting Black men in the area surrounding Tuskegee, Alabama, for 40 years. All 400 or so of the male subjects had contracted syphilis, and all had been told they were receiving treatment for the disease—except they were not.

The researchers in charge of the study instead deliberately withheld treatment in order to monitor the progression of the disease as it advanced unchecked. The study’s exposure led to a public outcry and heated debate over informed consent, ultimately giving rise to a number of regulations to prevent such an ethical lapse in the future. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study has since become a vital case study in bioethics, but public awareness of its existence is spotty at best. A new paper published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine seeks to remedy that, and it argues that federal regulation is not enough to prevent similar unethical research.

“Citizens have an obligation to remember the victims of any major catastrophe, as people do with 9/11,” the paper’s author, Martin Tobin, told Ars. “The men in Tuskegee suffered major injury, including death, at the hands of the premier health arm of the US government. A failure to remember what happened to these men is to add another layer of injury to what they already endured.”

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