Racism and Research:
The Case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study
By Allan M. Brandt
The Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis was one of the most horrible scandals in
American medicine in the 20th century. For a period of forty years, from 1932 to 1972, doctors
And public officials watched 400 men in Alabama die in a "scientific" experiment based on
Unethical methods that could produce no new information about syphilis.
The subjects of the study were never told they were participating in an "experiment."
Treatment that could have cured them was deliberately withheld, and many of the men were
prevented from seeing physicians who could have helped them. As a result, scores of people died
painful death, others became permanently blind or insane, and the children of several were born
with congenital syphilis.
How could this episode, requiring the collaboration of doctors, county and state health
departments, draft boards, and the U.S. Public Health Service, ever have occurred? As Allan
Brandt suggests, the Tuskegee study must be understood as a result of enduring American
In 1932 the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) initiated an experiment in Macon
County, Alabama, to determine the natural course of untreated, latent syphilis in black males.
The test comprised 400 syphilitic men as well as 200 uninfected men who served as controls.
The first published report of the study appeared in 1936 with subsequent papers issued every
four to six years through the 1960s. When penicillin became widely available by the early 1950s
as the preferred treatment for syphilis, the men did not receive therapy. In fact, on several
occasions, the USPHS actually sought to prevent treatment. Moreover, a committee at the
federally operated Center for Disease Control decided in 1969 that the study should be
Only in 1972, when accounts of the study first appeared in the national press, did the
Department of Health, Education and Welfare halt the...