The Tuskegee Syphilis Study was originally conceived in 1929 by the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) as a method of determining the predominance of syphilis within black communities across America and of identifying a mass treatment. The reason behind this segregation was that physicians believed both white and black people were opposites and reacted differently to diseases. Furthermore, it was widely assumed that syphilis and other widespread venereal conditions accounted for the high rate of crime and miscarriages within African-American municipalities and as of yet, no effective cure had been discovered. As a result, approximately 600 male subjects were recruited from the town of Tuskegee in Macon County, Alabama. Although the ethicality of the experiment at the beginning can be advocated, when it formally began in 1932, the scope had significantly changed. Dr. Taliaferro, then Chief of the USPHS Venereal Disease Division alleged that the procedure now involved observing the subjects while simultaneously telling them they had ‘bad blood’ and would receive free treatment.
Approximately two decades after the instigation of the study, penicillin became widely available and proved to be an effective treatment for many diseases, including syphilis. Nonetheless, the USPHS made many efforts to prevent the study’s subjects from being treated by other organizations. In 1972, Peter Buxton, an employee of the USPHS who had been disputing the moral grounds of the case since six year prior, blew the whistle and brought the study to an end when he leaked the story to a local news reporter. Although the records kept by the USPHS regarding the Tuskegee Syphilis Study were substandard, it is believed that between twenty eight and one hundred subjects died as a direct result of syphilis. As a result of public outcry brought about by the disclosure of the experiment, the U.S. congress began an investigation and a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the victims and their families, which later concluded in a $10 million settlement.
At first glance, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study is anything but ethical in nature. However, how and why it took place when it did must be closely analyzed to determine why it was unethical and to prevent it from reoccurring in the future. According to Allan M. Brandt, the study “revealed more about the pathology of racism than it did about the pathology of syphilis; more about the nature of scientific enquiry than the nature of the disease process.” At the time when the study began, racism was still very prominent throughout the United States, especially in the South. As such, the fact that doctors believed black people to be different and react in a dissimilar fashion to diseases in comparison to white people did not create uproar; instead, it was widely accepted in the medical sector. However, the ethical issues concerning this case go far and beyond the racist nature of the population at...