‘You Don’t Treat Dogs That Way’: The Horrifying Story Of The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

Published August 2, 2021
Updated October 26, 2021

For 40 years, the U.S. government doctors behind the Tuskegee experiment tricked African American men with syphilis into thinking they were getting free treatment — but gave them no treatment at all.

In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, the U.S. government appeared to be giving away free healthcare to the African American sharecroppers in Macon County, Alabama. There was a serious syphilis outbreak in this area of the country at the time and it appeared as though the government was helping to fight it.

However, it eventually came to light that the doctors let 600 men believe they were getting free healthcare and treatment — but actually gave them no treatment at all.

Tuskegee Experiment

National Archives/Wikimedia CommonsDr. Walter Edmondson taking a blood sample from an unidentified participant in the Tuskegee experiment. 1932.

Instead, the purpose of the Tuskegee experiment (a.k.a. the Tuskegee syphilis study) was to observe untreated Black patients as syphilis ravaged their bodies.

“The Tuskegee Study Of Untreated Syphilis In The Negro Male”

The United States Public Health Service ran the Tuskegee experiment from 1932 to 1972. It was the brainchild of senior official Taliaferro Clark, but he hardly worked alone. Several high-ranking members of the Public Health Service were involved and the study’s progress was regularly reported to the government and given repeated stamps of approval.

Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment Test Subjects

Wikimedia CommonsA group of men unaware that they are test subjects in the Tuskegee syphilis study.

Originally, the study’s directive was to observe the effects of untreated syphilis in African American men for six to eight months — followed by a treatment phase. But as the plans were being finalized, the Tuskegee experiment lost most of its funding. The challenges of the Great Depression caused one of the funding companies to back out of the project.

This meant the researchers could no longer afford to give treatment to the patients. However, the Tuskegee doctors didn’t cancel the project — they adjusted it.

Tuskegee Patient

National Archives

The study now had a new purpose: to see what happened to a man’s body if he didn’t get any treatment for syphilis at all.

The researchers thus observed the men who had syphilis until they died, lying to them about their condition to keep them from getting treatment anywhere else. They watched as their bodies slowly degraded and they died in agony.

Deliberately Withholding Treatment

Tuskegee Experiment Placebo Injectionh

National ArchivesA Tuskegee syphilis study doctor injects a patient with a placebo.

When the Tuskegee experiment first began, doctors already knew how to treat syphilis using arsenic therapy. But the researchers deliberately withheld information about treatment. They told the patients that they were suffering from “bad blood” to keep them from learning about syphilis on their own.

The experiment was unquestionably illegal. By the 1940s, penicillin was a proven, effective treatment for syphilis. Laws requiring treatment for venereal diseases were introduced. The researchers, however, ignored all of this.

Patient Being Injected

National Archives

Dr. Thomas Parran Jr., one of the study’s leads, wrote in his annual report that the study was “more significant now that a succession of rapid methods and schedules of therapy for syphilis has been introduced.”

In short, he maintained that the Tuskegee experiment was more important than ever precisely because so many cases of syphilis were getting cured. This, he argued, was their last chance to study how syphilis killed an untreated man.

40 Years Of Death

Syphilis Study

National ArchivesAn unidentified woman is tested by the doctors behind the Tuskegee experiment. This woman likely contracted syphilis from her husband, who was deliberately kept from getting treatment by the very men studying her.

In all the years this reprehensible study was active, nobody stopped it. By the 1940s, physicians weren’t only neglecting to treat the men’s syphilis, they were actively keeping them from finding out there was a cure.

“We know now, where we could only surmise before, that we have contributed to their ailments and shortened their lives,” Oliver Wenger, a director for the Public Health Services, wrote in a report. That didn’t mean he was going to stop the study or give them the treatment. Instead, he declared, “I think the least we can say is that we have a high moral obligation to those that have died to make this the best study possible.”

Tuskegee Syphilis Study Subject

National Archives

In 1969, 37 years into the study, a committee of Public Health Service officials gathered to review its progress. Of the five men in the committee, only one felt they should treat the patients. The other four ignored him.

Ethics weren’t a problem, the committee ruled, as long as they “established good liaison with the local medical society.” As long as everyone liked them, “there would be no need to answer criticism.”

The Doctors Who Let The Tuskegee Experiment Happen

Eunice Rivers With Tuskegee Syphilis Study Doctors

National ArchivesEunice Rivers poses for a photograph with two doctors in the Tuskegee experiment.

It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to be associated with such an experiment, let alone anyone from the historically Black Tuskegee Institute and its staff of Black doctors and nurses. But that’s part of the sad story behind the Tuskegee syphilis study.

The patients’ main contact point was an African American nurse named Eunice Rivers. Her patients called the observation building “Mrs. River’s Lodge” and regarded her as a trusted friend. She was the only staff member to stay with the experiment for the full 40 years.

Doctors With Tuskegee Syphilis Study Patient

National Archives

Rivers was fully aware that her patients weren’t being treated. But as a young, Black nurse given a major role in a government-funded project, she felt she couldn’t turn it down.

“I was just interested. I mean I wanted to get into everything that I possibly could”, she recalled.

Rivers even justified the study after it went public in 1972, telling an interviewer, “Syphilis had done its damage with most of the people.” She also mentioned that the research provided value, saying “The study was proven that syphilis did not affect the Negro as it did the white man.”

The Tuskegee Experiment Is Revealed To The World

Eunice Rivers Doing Paperwork

National ArchivesNurse Eunice Rivers filling out paperwork in 1932.

It took 40 years for someone to break the silence and shut the study down. Peter Buxtun, a Public Health Service social worker, tried staging several protests within the department to shut down the experiment. When his superiors continued to ignore him, he finally called the press.

On July 25, 1972, The Washington Star ran Buxtun’s story and the next day it was on the cover of The New York Times. The U.S. government had broken its own laws and experimented on its own citizens. Incriminating signatures from everyone in the Public Health Department were all over the documents.

Thus the Tuskegee experiment finally came to an end. Sadly, by then only 74 of the original test subjects survived. Approximately 40 of the patient’s wives had become infected, and 19 of the men had unknowingly fathered children born with congenital syphilis.

The Researchers Behind The Tuskegee Syphilis Study Refuse To Apologize

Doctors With Eunice Rivers

National ArchivesDoctors involved in the Tuskegee experiment with nurse Eunice Rivers.

Even after the truth came out, the Public Health Service didn’t apologize. John R. Heller Jr., the head of the Division of Venereal Diseases, publicly responded with a complaint that the Tuskegee experiment was shut down too soon. “The longer the study”, he said, “the better the ultimate information we would derive.”

Eunice Rivers insisted that none of her patients nor their families resented her for her part in the study. “They love Mrs. Rivers,” she said. “In all of this that has gone on, I have never heard anyone say anything that was bad about it”.

The Tuskegee Institute apparently agreed. In 1975, three years after the Tuskegee experiment became public knowledge, the institute presented Rivers with an Alumni Merit Award. “Your varied and outstanding contributions to the nursing profession,” they declared, “have reflected tremendous credit upon Tuskegee Institute.”

The families of the patients, however, didn’t echo the support of Rivers. “It was one of the worst atrocities ever reaped on people by the Government”, said Albert Julkes Jr., whose father died thanks to the study. “You don’t treat dogs that way.”

The Aftermath

Tuskegee Syphilis Study Injection

Wikimedia CommonsA subject receives an injection during the course of the Tuskegee syphilis study.

After news of the study came out, the American government introduced new laws to prevent another tragedy such as this. These new laws required informed consent signatures, accurate communication of diagnosis, and detailed reporting of test results in every clinical study.

An Ethics Advisory Board formed in the late 1970s to review ethical issues concerning biomedical research. Efforts to encourage the highest ethical standards in scientific research are ongoing to this day.

In 1997, the U.S. government formally apologized to the victims. President Bill Clinton invited the last eight survivors and their families to the White House and apologized to them directly. He told the five survivors that attended, “I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist. … Your presence here shows us that you have chosen a better path than your government did so long ago.”

After this look at the Tuskegee syphilis study, find out about the disturbing Stanford Prison Experiment. Then, read up on the horrifying medical experiments carried out by Japan’s Unit 731 during World War II.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked, and can be found on his website.