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July 29: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

July 28, 2015

1694781_study_photo_jpegdc4c492fe51afb90915ce5f1482179e3On this date in 1972 (some sources say July 25th, others July 28th), the infamous, 40-year-old Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, which left African-American men untreated for syphilis infection in order to trace the course of the disease, became national news when it was disclosed to the media by a social worker, Peter Buxton, whose Jewish father and Catholic mother had fled from the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia when he was an infant. By the time Buxton blew the whistle, of the original 399 infected men in the study, 28 had died of the disease, 100 were dead of related health conditions, 40 of their wives had been infected, and 19 of their children had been born infected. Prior to the inauguration of the Tuskegee experiment, the Rosenwald Fund, created by Julius Rosenwald of Sears-Roebuck, had funded a pilot program in five Southern states that was locating and treating poor black people infected with syphilis (the disease was epidemic in the South), but the Fund had ended its involvement in 1932, due to lack of matching state funds. The federally funded study, which deliberately withheld treatment, began later that year. In 1965, Dr. Irwin Schatz of Detroit, after reading about the Tuskegee study in a medical journal, had written a letter of outrage to the study’s authors, but had been ignored. Peter Buxton became aware of the experiment the following year and tried to raise ethical protests with the Center for Disease Control, which was by then in charge of the study. Stonewalled for several years, Buxton finally took his upset to the media — which led to a class action lawsuit by the NAACP that won $10 million and free medical care for survivors and their families, and to the 1974 National Research Act, which created a federal commission to write regulations governing studies with human participants. To see a 10-minute about this atrocious period in American history, look below.

“What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence.... What the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.” —President Bill Clinton, 1997