The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (informally referred to as the “Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment,” the “Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Male,” the “U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee,” or the “Tuskegee Experiment”) was an ethically unjustified study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The purpose of this study was to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis. Although the African-American men who participated in the study were told that they were receiving free health care from the federal government of the United States, they were not.
The Public Health Service started the study in 1932 in collaboration with Tuskegee University (then the Tuskegee Institute), a historically black college in Alabama. In the study, investigators enrolled a total of 600 impoverished African-American sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama. Of these men, 399 had latent syphilis, with a control group of 201 men who were not infected. As an incentive for participation in the study, the men were promised free medical care, but were deceived by the PHS, who never informed subjects of their diagnosis and disguised placebos, ineffective methods, and diagnostic procedures as treatment.
The men were initially told that the “study” was only going to last six months, but it was extended to 40 years. After funding for treatment was lost, the study was continued without informing the men that they would never be treated. None of the infected men were treated with penicillin despite the fact that by 1947, the antibiotic was widely available and had become the standard treatment for syphilis.
The study continued, under numerous Public Health Service supervisors, until 1972, when a leak to the press resulted in its termination on November 16 of that year. The study caused the deaths of 128 of its participants, either directly from syphilis or from related complications.
The 40-year Tuskegee Study was a major violation of ethical standards, and has been cited as “arguably the most infamous biomedical research study in U.S. history.” Its revelation led to the 1979 Belmont Report and to the establishment of the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and federal laws and regulations requiring institutional review boards for the protection of human subjects in studies involving them. The OHRP manages this responsibility within the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Its revelation has also been an important cause of distrust in medical science and the US government amongst African Americans.
On May 16, 1997, President Bill Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the United States to victims of the study, calling it shameful and racist. “What was done cannot be undone, but we can end the silence,” he said. “We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye, and finally say, on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful and I am sorry.”