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Tuskegee Syphilis Study

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Clinton Kopas Susan Gabriel English 102 December 1, 2011 The Goal of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Research studies are constantly being conducted in order to improve certain aspects of human life and knowledge. In many cases, these research studies involve human test subjects. One of the more famous studies involving human test subjects was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that began in 1932. Most have heard of this study, few would ever claim that any good came of it.

What had originally been a research study aimed at improving knowledge dealing with syphilis in the black male, turned into an extremely long and detrimental study that damaged hundreds of lives. Considering the damage that was done to the subjects and their families, it is easy to wonder if this study actually provided any real advances in medicine or medical knowledge. The origin of the study had good motives, being that it was to promote the health of blacks in the South. The U. S. Public Health Service collaborated with the Julius Rosenwald Fund to conduct demonstration programs to control syphilis in southern counties.

This failed due to funding issues, and the project had to be scrapped. However, the PHS was anxious “to salvage something of value from the project” (Thomas). So in 1932, a group of doctors recruited a total of 399 syphilis infected black men from Macon County, Alabama to participate in a study concerning the study of “bad blood”. The organizers took their initial idea and converted “the original treatment program into a nontherapeutic human experiment aimed at compiling data on the progression of the disease on untreated African-American males” (Herried; Fourtner; Fourtner).

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This study became formally known as the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (Herried; Fourtner; Fourtner; Thomas). The formal name that was applied to this study may imply the true motives of the researchers behind it. The study was not necessarily meant to find major breakthroughs in medicine, but to simply study the effects of untreated syphilis. The researchers attempted to justify what they were doing by saying it was going to be for a greater good, and that these men got more treatment than they would have gotten otherwise.

This may be true in a sense, but the men in the study were still intentionally withheld from treatment once penicillin was known to cure syphilis. By 1948, penicillin was known to be the most and best effective cure for syphilis. The study went on for 22 more years even though a cure had been found. There is no point in attempting to learn anything more about an infection when a cure has been found. The only treatment that the infected men received was treatment involving arsenicals and heavy metals.

This type of treatment was not nearly as effective and researchers knew it would not cure the men entirely, just keep them from being infectious (Reverby). It might not be going too far to even say that the researchers were conducting this experiment on the basis of pure curiosity. After all, there could not be much advancement made just studying the effects of syphilis in blacks compared to whites. Much about syphilis had already been known prior to the beginning of the Tuskegee Study. German scientists had already discovered most of what there is to know about syphilis over 20 years before the Tuskegee experiments had begun. The cause of syphilis, the stages of the diseases development, and the complications . . . . were all known to medical science in the early 1900’s” (Herried; Fourtner; Fourtner). It has been stated by many journalists and even some that were involved in the experiment, that nothing was gained from this long and drawn out experiment. All signs begin to point that it truly was an experiment based solely on curiosity. The black men that participated in the study were poor sharecroppers that would do and believe anything that the doctor told them. Most of these men had never even seen a doctor before in their lives.

These men were promised free medical care for their bad blood, and drawn in by signs that claimed “last chance for treatment”. The doctors and scientists conducting the research had church leaders and other respected members of the community help to enlist people to participate in the study. The researchers even enlisted the help of a black nurse and admired her ability to help them gain the trust of the participants. If the researchers needed to lie to a group of people in order to conduct their experiment, these men would have been some of these easiest to fool (Infoplease; Thomas).

The researchers that were involved in the Tuskegee Study are said to have been fairly liberal for the time and open to the education of blacks. However it seems that there was some sort of racist mind set involved in this scheme. The researchers seem to have had no regard to other human life and treated the men like lab rats. The researchers even made sure that their goal would not be interrupted by others. They went to great lengths to make sure all medical professionals in the area participated in the study and gave orders not to give treatment to the men.

The black men were even excluded from the draft during WWII to keep their research from being interrupted (Herried; Fourtner; Fourtner; Thomas) As the years went by, the study did not become less organized and forgotten. There were meetings held and new people were added to the project. The experiment was constantly reviewed throughout the years as the focus changed. Ethical issues were not brought up until halfway through the 1960’s, over 30 years after the experiment had begun. During the 1950’s, the focus turned to the aging of syphilis and the negative impact it had on the body.

It was quite clear that syphilis caused great damage over time and would shorten the life p of the host. Even at this point in the study, when so many men had passed away and others had gone unaccounted for, the study continued. The researchers believed that the study had gone on for so long that the men were untreatable anyways, even with use of penicillin (Herried; Fourtner; Fourtner). To continue a research study like this and deny men treatment just on the basis of curiosity seems too unethical to be true. But all signs point to this especially when considering another research study that took place during the same time period.

From 1946 to 1948, the American government performed research in Guatemala that involved intentionally infecting Guatemalan subjects with syphilis. The idea was to test the effectiveness of penicillin on different stages of syphilis. A very interesting detail is that a man by the name of Dr. John C. Cutler was involved not only in the Guatemalan study, but the Tuskegee study as well. It is strange that although Dr. Cutler was involved in both experiments, he did not choose to test the effectiveness of penicillin on the men who were already infected with syphilis in the Tuskegee Study.

Instead, he and his colleagues chose to allow syphilis infected prostitutes to sleep with Guatemalan prisoners. This truly shows the ethical value that the researchers held and what their true motives were (Villaroasa). Dr. Cutler and the other men involved in the Tuskegee research had no interest in any kind of advancement with the prevention of syphilis. A kind of bureaucracy was formed that helped fuel this unethical study. Men who were involved in the Tuskegee study would be promoted to surgeon general of the U. S. Public Health Service. Dr.

Cutler even obtained the position of assistant surgeon general in the PHS. Dr. Cutler defended the integrity of the study up until his death (Thomas; Villarosa) It is hard to imagine that an idea that began with such good intentions could have turned into the catastrophe that was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The men who conducted this study seemed to have been fueled by a strange curiosity that they masked with the idea of medical advancement. It is clear that the researchers did not view people with darker skin colors as equal, as they treated them like lab animals.

It is evident and even admitted by some involved in the study that there were no advances in medicine because of the study. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male only came to a close because of a national press release in 1972. By this time, over 370 men that had been used for research were either dead or believed to be dead. If the researchers had any true notion to help them, that number would have been much smaller. Not only had this study affected the men directly involved in it; it affected the men’s wives and their children as well.

There is no questioning the goal of the experiment being to see what would happen to someone if syphilis was left untreated. The doctors could have only continued this experiment based off of some strange curiosity. It is possible that some of them may have believed what they were doing was for the better, but that is hard to imagine. Nothing was gained from the experiments in the Tuskegee Study. The only possible advancement would be the understanding of ethics for future research. Works Cited Fourtner, A. W. , C. R. Fourtner, and C. F. Herreid. ""Bad Blood": A Case Study of the Tuskegee Syphilis Project. Philosophy. tamucc. edu. Texas A&M University. Web. 15 Nov. 2011. Reverby, Susan M. "Listening to Narratives from the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. " Lancet 377. 977B (2011): 1646-647. TheLancet. com - Home Page. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. Thomas, Stephen B. "The Legacy of Tuskegee. " Thebody. com. HealthCentral Network, Jan. -Feb. 2000. Web. 15 Nov. 2011. "The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. " Infoplease. com. Pearson Education, 2007. Web. 15 Nov. 2011. Villarosa, Linda. "The Guatemala Syphilis Experiment's Tuskegee Roots. " Theroot. com. The Slate Group, 02 Oct. 2010. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.

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