Racism The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

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Racism:The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Racism:The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

MainDiscussion Points in the Study

TheTuskegee syphilis study was conducted in Macon County in Alabama bythe U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) in 1929 to determine theprevalence of syphilis among the black people and to explore possiblemass treatment solutions. The study points out the contributingfactor to the high prevalence of syphilis among black people andaccording to physicians the factors include complete lack ofmorality, illiteracy, ignorance, unstable families, promiscuity, andreversion of barbaric tendencies. Doctors have also explained thatblack people have an excessive sexual desire, which is attributed tohis environment as they come from the Southern race [ CITATION All78 l 2057 ].

Thestudy states the need for finding possible treatment for syphilis asto reduce the suffering that infected persons through and even if acomplete cure cannot be found, at least a solution to reduce or avoidthe most devastating effects of the disease should be established. When the disease goes untreated, it can lead to insanity, prematuredeath, stillbirths or miscarriages and even cardiovascular.

Resultsand Consequences of the Study

Theexperiment required that the infected men should not be givenmedicine and therefore, most of them ended up dying from syphiliticlesions of either cardiovascular of the central nervous system. Almost 30% of the men had secured medicine on their one by the early1950s although not in adequate doses. Doctors reported that in a spanof ten years, the life expectancy of the men had reduced by 20%. Demonstrations against the experiment also emerged as it was viewedas ethically unjustified to conduct the study on human beings.

Wouldit be Acceptable to Replicate the Study Today?

Thisstudy would not be acceptable if it were to be reproduced today,mainly because of ethical considerations on humanitarian grounds.During the study, infected people were set aside and were deniedmedication all in the name of conducting an experiment. In the early1950s, when penicillin became available as the treatment forsyphilis, theme set aside for the study, did not receive anytreatment. The men selected for the experiment were chosen indeception as they were never told that they were being used for anexperiment. This patients’ consent was not sought which is afundamental requirement in any medical provision facility. The studyreports that the men were even told that they would be treated freelywithout any charges all this was done so as to get the requirednumber of people for the experiment.

Whetherthe Study was Ethical or Unethical

TheTuskegee syphilis study was wrong because it denied infected menaccess to medical care and even warned other medical practitionersagainst treating the people. The case of Vonderlehr talking to agroup of black doctors seeking their cooperation not to treat the menin 1934 is a good example. A warning was issued to Health Departmentin Alabama not to deal with the test subjects and the provision ofitem list and a letter to Macon County requesting them to refer thosemen back to USPHS in case they sought medical care [ CITATION All78 l 2057 ].The patients were also given medicines which were non-effective such as mercurial ointment, or they were given inadequatedoses just to preserve their interest and to make them think thatthey were undergoing treatment. The study was centrally based on liesand dishonesty which is very unethical for medicine practitioners,doctors and even for researchers.

Afundamental ethical consideration was over-ruled in the study whichstated that no person should be subjected to any physical harm or besubjected to avoidable risk of death without his or her freely givenconsent. Ethics also require that no experiment should be performedon a man, if it might be harmful to any extent even though the resultmay be important and significant to the health of others or science.The study did not consider this ethical approach since the men weresubjected to an experiment only to benefit others and not them.


Thesociological perspective widely used in the text is conflictperspective which seeks to discover the tension that exists withinthe society, because of differences that exist between segments hencethere is the inevitable conflict of interests. The article presents aconflict and a struggle between two parties, the whites, and theblacks, with the blacks considered to be highly promiscuous andsusceptible to venereal diseases, unlike the whites. Using blacks forthe experiment disregarded their humanity and treated them as lessthan humans which is wrong. Therefore, there is bound to develop aconflict between the two groups because of racism, which is evidentlypresented in the article, the injustice, deception, and damages thatwere committed during the experiment.

Thearticle on the Tuskegee syphilis study presented an overall view ofracism in the world and how the blacks were treated as being less ofhumans. They were even referred to as a group of people who have noconception of time, indefinite personal history and illiterate hencecan be used for the experiment.


Brandt, A. M. (1978). Racism and research: The case of the Tuskegee Syphilis study. The Hastings Center Report, 8(6), 21-29.