The US government had the syphilis cure, but refused to treat hundreds of African-Americans
On May 16, 1997, President Bill Clinton stood up and issued a formal apology on behalf of the American people to the innocent African-American men whose lives had been taken or destroyed by one of the cruellest United States government experiments ever to exist: the experiment which saw the United States Public Health Service discover the cure for syphilis, but let hundreds of sufferers go blind, deaf or simply perish.
"No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish," he told them. "What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry." His apology seemed heartfelt, but it was too little, too late. The study's ugly legacy couldn't be erased and the relationship between the US government and the African-American people would never be the same again.
It all started back in 1932. Syphilis was rife across America and it was estimated that 70 per cent of people who picked up the bacterial infection were "doomed". Back in the days before routine testing or antibiotic treatment, those affected by syphilis were in a dire situation. The 10 per cent of the American population that were infected often lived blissfully unaware of their illness - until they developed paralysis, blindness, deafness, sterility, heart disease, or any one of the other awful side effects.
According to the Oxford Journal, it was a "cultural embarrassment" and would remain so until someone figured out a syphilis cure. While some doctors worked tirelessly on finding one, others decided to monitor the progression of the illness. That's how 600 impoverished, African-American sharecroppers from Macon Country, Alabama came into the picture. Of these men, 399 had contracted syphilis before they came across flyers offering "free medical care", while 201 who made up the control group did not have the disease. The "six-month" investigation was going to examine the differences between the two. Alas, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was born.
From the get-go, the US Public Health Service knew exactly what was wrong with the 399 men, who came from one of the poorest places in the underprivileged state of Montgomery. But the sufferers themselves didn't. Rather than telling them they were infected with a sexually transmitted disease, the government kept stum, only informing them that they had "bad blood". Receiving the promise of free medical checks, free food, free transportation and burial insurance in exchange for their ignorance, the men consented. They lived in a place where many black men had reportedly never even been to the doctor, so it seemed like a good deal to them.
But the health department never intended to keep their promise. Rather than actually treat the men, medical workers periodically provided them with pills and tonic, leading them to believe that they were being treated when they weren't. Purposely concealing the study's purpose from the men, they also subjected them to painful spinal taps and blood tests during the study's early months, producing occasional public reports which showed that the infection-ridden men were dying faster than the study subjects without the STI.
For a few years, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment continued in this manner. But already utterly despicable in the initial stages, the people in charge were about to stoop to new lows. By 1947, penicillin had become the official cure for syphilis and the doctors on the project knew this all too well. However, they continued the study without curing them. The African-American participants weren't allowed penicillin, or any information whatsoever that would lead them to the conclusion that the US Public Health Service knew that penicillin would cure them.
As a result, over the years the men involved in the corrupt study passed on their "bad blood" to their wives and their children. By the time the study was exposed, 28 men had died of syphilis, 100 had died of related complications, 40 wives contracted the disease, and 19 children born with congenital syphilis. All of these people were ultimately betrayed in every way possible that a person could be betrayed by their own government.
On July 25 1972, America's eyes were opened to the horror of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Rather than the promised six months, it had continued for 40 years, and would have thrived longer if it weren't for Peter Buxtun, a PHS venereal disease investigator, who was to be the whistleblower. Buxtun was hired by the Public Health Service in December 1965 to interview patients with STIs. Over the course of his employment, he was told about the horrifying investigation by co-workers, later saying: "I didn't want to believe it. This was the Public Health Service. We didn't do things like that."
However, it became clear to him that the racist experiment was real and that he needed to do something about it. In November 1966, he filed an official protest on ethical grounds with the Service's Division of Venereal Diseases. Their response was everything you'd expect a health department who had treated African-America men worse than scum. Buxtun was informed that the experiment was not yet complete and needed to continue until it was - this meant until all of the men involved were dead and their bodies had been autopsied.
He finally went to the press in 1972 and in July it was front-page news of the New York Times. The secret was out and it was time to pay the consequences. Almost immediately an advisory panel confirmed the story as true and the participants of the study who were still alive - who had absolutely no idea that they'd been the subjects of 40 years worth of disgustingly unethical experiments until this point - sued the government. In the devastating aftermath, the US government paid up $9 million for their mistakes, as well as agreeing to provide free medical treatment to the eight surviving participants and their surviving family members. But no money could ever be enough.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment lives on to this very day. Unsurprisingly, the study was blamed for distrust among black people in the US towards the medical community over the following decades, particularly with concerns to clinical testing. In medical and public health circles, it is reportedly known as the "Tuskegee effect." In addition, although all of the firsthand participants are now dead, the legal fallout is still going today at the federal courthouse in Montgomery where court workers were unable to locate some descendants, and others never responded to letters from the clerk's office. Yet these effects are, of course, only second to the pain and trauma the victims and their families were put through by their own health service.
However, before they died, the victims of the depraved experiment rose above the US government, with five of the study's eight survivors - who have all passed away now - attending the White House ceremony in 1997 where President Clinton apologised for America's sins and victim Herman Shaw spoke of his vision of what America should be like after the horrifying experiment.
In spite of being cheated by his own government, Herman was hopeful and had some inspiring words for the people of the Land of the Free, saying: “In order for America to reach its full potential, we must truly be one America — black, red, white together — trusting each other, caring for each other, and never allowing the kind of tragedy which has happened to us in the Tuskegee study to ever happen again."