The Tuskegee Story Is Even Worse Than We Think

tuskegee syphilis study doctor injects subject
Adé Hennis
May 24, 2024

A 2015 study of African American adults found that most participants cited the Tuskegee experiment (1932-1972) as a reason for their mistrust of the medical establishment. When you dig into what really happened, you’ll understand why.

The subjects of the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” were told that they were being treated for “bad blood.” Nearly 400 men with syphilis were injected with placebos. Even after penicillin became the standard treatment for the disease in 1947, none of the men received it.

Scientists believed that Black people were more prone to sexually transmitted infections like syphilis but wouldn’t provide treatment for them. So the purpose of the study was simply to observe how untreated syphilis destroyed the bodies and minds of the infected men.

By the time public outrage forced the study to end in 1972, 128 of the men had died of syphilis or its complications, 40 wives had been infected, and 19 infants had been born with the disease. Only 74 members of the original test group survived.

The Tuskegee experiment is a big reason for our unwillingness to trust the medical establishment, but it’s far from the only one. In a system built on colonialism and exploiting Black bodies, what can we trust?