The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, which began in 1932, is seen as one of the darkest moments in medical history, and one of the most evil US government experiments on humans. In the Tuskegee syphilis study, doctors at Tuskegee University were trying to find out more about syphilis. But things went off the rails quickly - researchers lost their funding, they lied to their test subjects (impoverished African American men), and didn't treat them for syphilis even after they knew penicillin could cure the infection.
What began as a plan to provide treatment for men who had no regular access to medical care turned into a 40-year-long unethical syphilis study about what the disease did to the human body. Specifically, what it did to the African-American human body, since, at the time, researchers believed that different races responded to diseases in different ways. In the name of science, doctors watched as men went blind, went crazy, and died of the terrible disease.
It wasn't the first (or the last) time scientists exploited African Americans for research purposes - as is proven with the case of Henrietta Lacks. But the US syphilis study in Tuskegee, AL, is now seen as the most unethical medical study in US history and is considered one of the creepiest government conspiracies of modern memory.
It Began When Syphilis Started Devastating Parts Of AlabamaPhoto: National Archives / Wikimedia Commons
In the early 1930s, syphilis was identified as a major problem for the US. There were certain sections of the country that seemed to be hit harder than others, and rural Alabama was one of them. Macon County, consisting of mostly sharecroppers who didn't have access to a good education, had a big problem with syphilis - up to a third of the men were infected.
The CDC designed a study to identify how big a problem it was dealing with and create a treatment plan. However, due to a loss of funding the study quickly and drastically changed course- the title became "The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male."
The Researchers Targeted A Vulnerable Population That Didn't Really Understand The Gravity Of The Study
Researchers selected 600 men from Macon County, AL, as part of a vulnerable group of citizens for the experiment. Many of the men had never actually visited a doctor before and did not have regular access to medical care. More than half - about 399 men - had syphilis, while 201 did not. Researchers did not tell any of the men they had (or did not have) syphilis, instead telling them they had "bad blood."
The promise of hot meals and free medical care and burial services was enough to persuade them to participate and, because many of them were not fully literate, they could not fully understand the paperwork and forms they were given for the study.
They Lost Funding For The Study - But Decided Go Forward With Unauthorized ExperimentsPhoto: Author Unknown/National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The Tuskegee Experiment officially began in 1932. The study was supposed to last only six months and provide proof that a proper treatment for syphilis was needed. Instead, the Great Depression hit and the majority of the funding for the project was cut.
So, instead of doing a short-term study and providing treatment, the researchers decided to "passively" follow the men to see how the disease progressed.
A Treatment With Penicillin Was Discovered During The Trial, But Not Administered To Test Subjects
In 1943, researchers at the US Marine Hospital in Staten Island, NY, did trials with penicillin on syphilis patients and discovered it actually provided a cure for the disease. Prior to penicillin being used as a treatment, most physicians were at a bit of a loss to treat syphilis.
This was a huge turning point in syphilis research, especially since other proposed cures like arsenic and mercury were sometimes deadly. Unfortunately, the Tuskegee participants were not offered this medicine.