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Tuskegee Syphilis Study


Tuskegee Syphilis Study was a series of experiments conducted on unaware African Americans with the goal of uncovering medical evidence of racial disparities. Not only were the researchers driven by racial prejudice, but they also manipulated their test subjects with lies and deceitful information. The experiment gained wide resonance across the country and the international community and was instrumental in the implementation of ethnic norms of scientific research. Understanding the nature of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study is essential in ascertaining its effect on medical and scientific spheres.

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Origins of the Study

During the 1930s, the American population was hit by a sexually transmitted disease on an unprecedented scale. At the time, there was no effective treatment for syphilis, which compelled doctors and researchers to find new means of combating the disease. However, many researchers also believed that race may play a key role in the treatment methods because of the assumed differences in the organisms of white and black people (Yearby, 2017). Particularly, it was hypothesized that syphilis affected the neurological systems of white people and the cardiovascular system of the black patients.

Ethical Issues of the Experiment

First, the entire study was based around a carefully planned deception. The participants were led to believe that they would receive free care and working treatment. However, the researchers stopped administration of treatment without informing the test subjects. Second, the study encompassed patients segregated patients with low income, who were incentivized by free meals and supposed free healthcare. Finally, the study continued even after the discovery of penicillin’s effectiveness at treating syphilis. The researchers deliberately avoided the administration of penicillin to ascertain the long-term consequences of not treating the patients (Alsan et al., 2019). Out of 600 participants less than a hundred survived.

Legacy of the Study

Following the controversy, the Office for Human Research Protections was created to monitor the quality of clinical trials. The most significant requirement was the compulsory nature of informed consent, which required research teams to keep participants informed of the conditions of the study and diagnoses (Yearby, 2017). The American population in general, and the black people specifically viewed governmental healthcare with distrust and suspicion. Racial basis of the study has highlighted the systemic prejudice, which manifested in the public silence following the public outrage. The silence continued until 1997, when Clinton apologized before the survivors, sixty years after the start of the experiment and twenty years after its shutdown.


Alsan, M., Wanamaker, M., & Hardeman, R. R. (2020). The Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis: A case study in peripheral trauma with implications for health professionals. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35(1), 322-325.

Yearby, R. (2017). Exploitation in medical research: the enduring legacy of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Case Western Reserve Law Review, 67(16), 1171-1226.

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