Fifty Years Later, Effects of Tuskegee Experiment Linger

There is a long history of bad blood, of generational mistrust when it comes to African Americans and the medical community. It contributed to the wariness of the COVID-19 vaccines because many know the story of the Tuskegee experiment or have had their own experience of poor or ill treatment.

I learned about the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” which was conducted from 1932 to 1972, from a movie. A 1997 television drama starring Alfre Woodard and Lawrence Fishburne, “Miss Evers’ Boys,” taught me.

For 40 years, scientists experimented on 600 African American men from Macon County, Alabama, who were told they had “bad blood” but were being cured. Without their knowledge or consent, the goal, however, was to “observe the natural history of untreated syphilis.”

Viewed as subjects, their bodies were used for research purposes. Most were left untreated even after the discovery of penicillin as a cure. Conducted by the United States Public Health Service, or USPHS, the study included blood tests, spinal taps, xrays and autopsies.

This year marks 50 years since the unethical “study” by the nation’s leading public health agency was revealed by the Associated Press Special Assignment team. Only after documents were leaked by Peter Buxtun, a whistleblower at the USPHS, leading to a public outcry, was the “study” shut down nearly four months later.

The same year as the made-for-television adaptation of a 1992 stage play, an apology was issued by the Clinton administration with several of the men who were experimented on in attendance. Some of the men were in their 90s and others well past 100 years old.

A $10 million dollar settlement was reached, and new laws, including the 1974 National Research Act, were passed on the treatment of human research subjects. But it would not undo the belief in scientific racism, that is a pseudoscience used to enforce racial stereotypes and biases.

Scientific racism undergirded American slavery and the claim that African and later African Americans were made for enslavement due to their physique and high pain tolerance. Treated as inferior and simple-minded, European colonizers used these arguments to justify the mistreatment of the African people they enslaved.

This belief in the high pain tolerance of African Americans has contributed to the high mortality rate in pregnant African American women, who attest that their pain was dismissed as were their requests for pain management.

Evelyn J. Patterson, an associate professor of sociology and law at Vanderbilt University, along with her co-authors found in their study released in April, “Gendered Racism on the Body: An Intersectional Approach to Maternal Mortality in the United States,” that the mortality rate for African American women was double that of their European American counterparts.

The Pew Research Center also released a study in April, capturing the community’s mixed reviews concerning health disparities.

On October 31, popular TikToker Joel Bervell, who is a Ghanaian American medical student and known as the “medical mythbuster,” discussed the false belief that African Americans have “thicker skin.”

A woman claiming to be a nurse commented on his page: “Black skin is definitely thicker than white. I’m a nurse and give injections every day, you can feel the difference as the needle goes in. This is also why black people age way better.”

Bervell was quick to point out that this is a false narrative in two follow-up videos while also sharing the findings of a 2016 report on “racial bias in pain assessment and treatment,” which was published in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

The report found that 40% of first- and second-year medical students believed “black people’s skin is thicker than white peoples.”

Sadly, 50 years later, the effects still linger but will only get worse if left untreated.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week calling attention to the 50th anniversary of the Tuskegee study officially being terminated. The previous article in the series is:

A Brief History of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study | Monty Self

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