Weird History

The True Story Of The Government's Horrific Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments On US Citizens 

Rachel Souerbry
Updated August 4, 2020 367.4k views 13 items

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. 

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Local Physicians Gave The Men Placebo Treatments That Did Absolutely Nothing
Local Physicians Gave Th... is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The True Story Of The Government's Horrific Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments On US Citizens
Photo: Author Unknown/Grook Da Oger/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The men involved in the study were told they were being treated for "bad blood," a common term at the time for a variety of different ailments. The Public Health Service actually requested that local physicians not treat the men and they were given placebo drugs, which were usually aspirin or mineral supplements.

Even when about 250 of the participants were drafted into the military during WWII, they continued to receive placebos from military doctors. 

Partners and Children Were Also Infected
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Photo: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The participants chosen for the study were assumed to have "late-stage syphilis," meaning they were no longer considered contagious. Sadly, for some of the men, this might not have actually been the case. By the end of the study, researchers reported that 22 wives, 17 children, and two grandchildren contracted syphilis.

After revelations about the study came to light, the federal government moved to make reparations. They were provided with medical care from the government for the rest of their lives. 

The Experiment Went On For Years Despite Several People Raising Concerns Over It
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Photo: Department of Health, Education, and Welfare/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Throughout the 40-year-long experiment, the researchers watched as syphilis ran its course in its victims. The object of the study had become the observation of the progression of syphilis rather than finding a cure, and the end point was deemed to be the autopsy of the participants. Many wanted the program to be seen through to completion, despite several high ranking officials in the government raising ethical concerns that patients were not aware of what they had gotten into.

The US Public Health Services department ignored them - that is, until a public health service investigator named Peter Buxtun released information about the study to the Associated Press

A Whistle-Blower Brought An End To The Study
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Photo: Department of Health, Education, and Welfare/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

It wasn't until the 1960s that a whistle blower brought the nation's attention to the study. While the research was not secret within the government - and was even taught in some universities while it was ongoing - the general public had no idea the experiment was taking place. Public health service investigator Peter Buxtun raised concerns to the director of the US division of venereal diseases about the study, and when the agency rebuked him, he turned to an Associated Press reporter named Jean Heller. 

Her story ran on July 26, 1972 on the front page of the New York Times, and subsequent coverage followed. This caused a large public outcry, and led to the experiment being shut down.