As the fight over reforms to the American health-care system continues this week, Tuesday marks the 45th anniversary of a grim milestone in the history of health care in the U.S.
On July 25, 1972, the public learned that, over the course of the previous 40 years, a government medical experiment conducted in the Tuskegee, Ala., area had allowed hundreds of African-American men with syphilis to go untreated so that scientists could study the effects of the disease.
“Of about 600 Alabama black men who originally took part in the study, 200 or so were allowed to suffer the disease and its side effects without treatment, even after penicillin was discovered as a cure for syphilis,” the Associated Press reported, breaking the story. “[U.S. Public Health Service officials] contend that survivors of the experiment are now too old to treat for syphilis, but add that PHS doctors are giving the men thorough physical examinations every two years and are treating them for whatever other ailments and diseases they have developed.”
By the time the bombshell report came out, seven men involved had died of syphilis and more than 150 of heart failure that may or may not have been linked to syphilis. Seventy-four participants were still alive, but the government health officials who started the study had already retired. And, because of the study’s length and the way treatment options had evolved in the intervening years, it was hard to pin the blame on an individual — though easy to see that it was wrong, as the reporter explained in the Aug. 7, 1972, issue:
About three months later, the study was terminated, and the families of victims reached a $10 million settlement in 1974 (the terms of which are still being negotiated today by descendants). The last study participant passed away in 2004.
Tuskegee was chosen because it had the highest syphilis rate in the country at the time the study was started. As the reporter made clear with a 1940 profile of government efforts to improve the health of African Americans, concern about that statistic had drawn the attention of the federal government and the national media. Surgeon General Thomas Parran boasted that in Macon County, Ala., where Tuskegee is located, the syphilis rate among the African-American population had been nearly 40% in 1929 but had shrunk to 10% by 1939. Serious efforts were being devoted to the cause, the story explained, though the magazine clearly missed the full story of what was going on:
In the years following the disclosure, the Tuskegee study became a byword for the long and complicated history of medical research of African Americans without their consent. In 1997, President Bill Clinton apologized to eight of the survivors. “You did nothing wrong, but you were grievously wronged,” he said. “I apologize and I am sorry that this apology has been so long in coming.” As Clinton noted, African-American participation in medical research and organ donation remained low decades after the 1972 news broke, a fact that has often been attributed to post-Tuskegee wariness.
In 2016, a National Bureau of Economic Research paper argued that after the disclosure of the 1972 study, “life expectancy at age 45 for black men fell by up to 1.5 years in response to the disclosure, accounting for approximately 35% of the 1980 life expectancy gap between black and white men and 25% of the gap between black men and women.” However, many experts argue that the discrepancy has more to do with racial bias in the medical profession.
Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman.