June 30, 2016 4:15 PM
The word “Tuskegee” recalls one of the most shameful chapters in U.S. medical history, one that has inspired generations of mistrust.
What has come to be known as the Tuskegee experiment tracked the untreated progression of syphilis for decades in a group of African-American men who were told only that they were getting free health care from the U.S. government.
Today, African-American men have the worst health outcomes of all major ethnic, racial and demographic groups in the United States. The life expectancy for black men at age 45 is three years less than for their white male counterparts and five years less than for African-American women.
In a recently published working paper through the National Bureau of Economic Research, two researchers say this difference may have something to do with black men’s mistrust of health care providers, possibly linked to the Tuskegee experiment.
The experiment began in 1932, when a group of government-funded researchers recruited 600 impoverished black farmworkers, the majority of whom had sexually transmitted syphilis, a bacterial infection that can result in blindness, dementia and death.
The men were given free health care, meals and burial insurance in exchange for participation in the study. But they were not told they were being studied for syphilis — they were told they were receiving treatment for “bad blood.”
No truth, no treatment
The experiment was meant to last six months, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Instead, it carried on for four decades. By the mid-1940s, doctors knew they could treat syphilis effectively with penicillin. But the study participants were not told, nor were they treated. Instead, doctors allowed the disease to progress while they studied the effects. In some cases, the men died.
The study ended in 1972 after it was leaked to the press. “Tuskegee” became synonymous with flawed ethical standards. Public outcry helped facilitate a $10 million class-action settlement.
Tuskegee has never been forgotten.
Marianne Wanamaker, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Tennessee, and physician Marcella Alsan, an assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University, say pre- and post-1972 medical surveys show that the shocking news about the study lingered in people’s minds and affected their decisions about health care for a long time afterward, influencing health care decisions even today.
African-American men with lower education and income levels showed the strongest tendencies to identify with the study subjects, and those living near Tuskegee were more likely to empathize with the study subjects than those who lived farther away.
FILE – Tuskegee syphilis study survivor Ernest Hendon, 90, smiles while watching then-President Bill Clinton give a public apology, via video telecast, at the Kellogg Executive Conference Center in Tuskegee, Alabama, May 16, 1997. At right is Ethel Talley of the Macon County Health Department.