The Tuskegee experiment is part of a larger and longer narrative of the exploitation of African Americans. It is a reminder that scientific racism is not a thing of the past and continued despite multiple social movements that hoped to move the country in a different direction.

In the end, it took a whistleblower to end this decades-long misconduct. Justice too often still requires courageous individuals.

The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” ended in 1972 when television shows like “MASH” were just beginning. The study began during the Great Depression and continued after the civil rights movement, after the assassination of its leader, Martin Luther King Jr.

The experimentation on 600 African American men – of whom 399 were diagnosed with syphilis and 201 were a control group without the disease – kept going during protests against the Vietnam War and for women’s liberation and gay rights.

While the world around them was demanding change and fellow citizens were asking to be treated no different than any other human being, these men were confined to the biases of 19th century scientific racism by their own government.

The experiment didn’t stop because the scientists suddenly had a change of heart or were moved by images of protest on their television screens. This U.S. Public Health Service study didn’t end despite the discovery of penicillin as a cure and it being widely available beginning in 1943. The study did not conclude when the men began to die. No one came clean about what they had been doing.

Instead, the study would have to be exposed by a former employee of the United States Public Health Service, Peter Buxtun, with Associated Press reporter Jean Heller breaking the news to the American public.

At the time, this was breaking news, but this wasn’t the only story of such abuse. The United States has a binding history of unethical medical practices that disproportionately affected members of the African American community. Not surprisingly, it began with chattel slavery.

“Enslavement could not have existed and certainly could not have persisted without medical science. However, physicians were also dependent upon slavery, both for economic security and for the enslaved “clinical material” that fed the American medical research and medical training that bolstered physicians’ professional advancement,” writes Harriet A. Washington in Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

Considered three-fifths of a person according to article one, section two of the United States Constitution and “having no rights which the white man was bound to respect” as relayed by Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision in 1857, they were easy targets. Having little social worth, their bodies were sacrificed in the name of medical advancement.

“These subjects were given experimental vaccines known to have unacceptably high lethality, were enrolled in experiments without their consent or knowledge, were subjected to surreptitious surgical and medical procedures while unconscious, injected with toxic substances, deliberately monitored rather than treated for deadly ailments, excluded from lifesaving treatments, or secretly farmed for sera or tissues that were used to perfect technologies such as infectious-disease tests,” Washington continues.

The Tuskegee experiment is not an outlier or a one-in-a-million-chance happening. It is a part of the history of medicine and medical advancement in America.

In 2021, the “Mothers of Gynecology” monument was unveiled, revealing another side of the story of 19th century Montgomery physician J. Marion Sims, often described as the father of gynecology.

What is left unsaid is that he experimented on African American women who were enslaved — without consent or anesthesia. The three statues, almost 15 feet in height, feature Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, three of the 11 women who were experimented on in the 1840s.

Henrietta Lacks was treated for cancer at the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, by researcher George Gey in 1951. During her treatment, her cancer cells were taken without her knowledge or permission.

The HeLa cell line, considered “immortal” cells and the first cells with the ability to be shared and multiplied, have been used to foster countless medical breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine, cloning, gene-mapping, in vitro fertilization and, most recently, COVID-19 research.

Millions of Americans continue to benefit from the cells taken from her body without her consent or the permission of her family.

These stories are never-ending. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The last [Tuskegee] study participant died in January 2004. The last widow receiving THBP benefits died in January 2009. Participants’ children (10 at present) continue to receive medical and health benefits.”

“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane,” Washington says. The Tuskegee experiment is not a part of America’s “dark past.”

No, the ophthalmoscope (the light used to check those men’s eyes) was bright. These kinds of injustices will continue until everyone sees that race is not a science.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week calling attention to the 50th anniversary of the Tuskegee study officially being terminated. The previous articles in the series are:

A Brief History of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study | Monty Self

Fifty Years Later, Effects of Tuskegee Experiment Linger | Starlette Thomas

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