Treating Syphilis

At the time the study began, treating syphilis was difficult, lengthy, and costly. The development of penicillin in the early 1940s, however, gave doctors a simple and effective treatment. Yet throughout the course of the study, researchers not only did not offer penicillin to their subjects but also kept them from receiving it elsewhere. During World War II, researchers worked with local draft boards to prevent their subjects from getting drafted into the military, where the subjects might have received treatment. When federally funded venereal disease treatment clinics opened locally, researchers enlisted the support of clinic doctors to keep research subjects from receiving treatment. Similarly, they enlisted the cooperation of Tuskegee’s all-white medical society to ensure that no local doctor gave penicillin to their subjects for any other reason. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which treated African American men as less- than-human guinea pigs, was not the work of a few isolated crackpots. Rather, it was run by a respected federal agency with the cooperation of state and county medical associations and even of doctors and nurses from the local Tuskegee Institute, a world-renowned college for African Americans. Over the years, more than a dozen articles based on the study appeared in top medical journals without anyone ever questioning the study’s ethics. Yet the study patently flouted the Nuremberg Code and, after 1966, the PHS’s own research ethics guidelines. Nevertheless, the study did not end until a 1972 newspaper exposé caused public outrage. By that time, at least 28 and possibly as many as 100 research subjects had died of syphilis, and an unknown number had succumbed to syphilis-related heart problems

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