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What Is The Tuskegee Syphilis Study?

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Updated January 24, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What Is The Tuskegee Syphilis Study?

Answer:

The "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male" was designed to investigate the long-term side effects of untreated syphilis. It followed a group of 600 poor African-American men in Alabama, 399 who had syphilis and the rest who did not, for over 40 years. In the course of the study, scientists actively denied treatment to these men, which had devastating effects on the health of not only the men but their families. This is why the study is best known as "The Tuskegee Incident," one of the most blatant examples of violation of scientific ethics seen in the United States in the last 50 years.

Although the study had reasonable goals -- to understand the effects of untreated syphilis on whole body health -- it was performed in an ethically unjustifiable way. For almost 30 years after penicillin became the accepted treatment for syphilis in 1945, the men in the Tuskegee study were actively denied treatment by not only the study doctors, but by physicians in their own communities who had been requested to withhold treatment from the study participants so that scientists could continue to follow the course of the disease.

The study, which started in 1932, was ended in 1972, and in 1974 the men involved in the study won a class-action lawsuit against the government that gave them lifetime health care benefits. However, it was not until 1997 that these men and their families received a formal apology from now former President Clinton on behalf of the nation.

One of the results of the Tuskegee incident is that many African Americans are now understandably reluctant to participate in research studies, and there is still a great deal of lingering mistrust of the scientific and medical communities.

Sources:

U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee Accessed 5/28/07.

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