The damage from a series of unethical syphilis experiments on Southern black men may have reverberated far beyond the test subjects themselves, a new study has found.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was a government-run project from 1932 to 1972 in which hundreds of black men in Macon County, Ala., were deprived of a known syphilis treatment so that researchers could observe how the disease progressed. The tests were later widely condemned and President Clinton issued a formal apology for them in 1997. “Tuskegee” has also come to be a stand-in, historians say, for the centuries of abuse that African-Americans have suffered in the medical system.
The syphilis study was known in the medical community, but came into the public spotlight with front-page coverage in 1972 in the New York Times. That same year, the US Public Health Service halted the study. But its legacy carried on, according to a new analysis, which finds that after 1972, black men’s health suffered because they avoided doctors and died earlier than they would have been expected to. The authors claim that the Tuskegee revelation contributed to an eroded trust in doctors.
That finding “adds greater credibility to the conclusion that the Tuskegee Syphilis Study had an impact not only on the men directly involved, but on generations that followed,” said Stephen B. Thomas, director of the Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, who has been studying the legacy of Tuskegee since the early ’90s.
“There is an element of the shadow of the Tuskegee study still living today, and one of the ways of addressing it is to shine a light on that shadow,” Thomas said.
This is the first study to quantify the health impacts of Tuskegee, multiple researchers said. Other groups have studied other aspects of its aftermath — the Tuskegee Legacy Project, for instance, examined how knowledge of the experiments impacted individuals’ willingness to participate in research in the present day.
Those studies found no association between the two, but did find that blacks were more afraid of participating, researchers involved in the project said.
This new research incorporated numbers on mortality in the United States and trust in the medical system, measured by how often individuals visited doctors and their self-reported trust in a 1998 survey. The researchers also looked at how far away people lived from the site of the experiments.
The authors found that on average, from 1972 to 1988, American black men who lived to age 45 had a life expectancy of 1.4 years less than would be expected had the information about Tuskegee not been revealed. Black men also interacted less frequently with the medical system and were more mistrusting of doctors. The effects were more pronounced for men living closer to Macon County. Some of the effects were also more pronounced for men who were less educated. The study did not find the same effects for black women.
Read the full article.