I had heard about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in passing, without ever learning the complete story filled with all of the horrifying details that Allan Brandt’s article presents. Brandt offers a comprehensive portrayal of the U.S. Public Health Service’s study that demonstrates the ways in which the study’s foundation was built upon harmful racial stereotypes. The article is critical of the fundamentally unethical nature and overt deception of the study, as well as the HEW’s interpretation of the facts.
There are many concepts set forth in the article that relate to our topic of trauma and violence. I would argue that deceiving the men involved in the study, withholding treatment, and conducting autopsies without consent are all examples of violence. During the 40 years of the study, irreparable damage was done to the lives of the men and their families, as well as the trauma for the community of Tuskegee as a whole. As Brandt states, “the entire health of a community was jeopardized by leaving a communicable disease untreated.” This timeline gives a look at the events leading up to the study as well as the effects after its conclusion.
The study’s primary mechanism for obtaining information was deceit, which is problematic to begin with. The fact that the study was designed without the “intention of providing any treatment for the infected men” lends great insight into the study’s purpose and approach. Those in charge went to great lengths to obscure their true objectives from the men by promising free treatment in exchange for grueling tests and procedures, such as spinal taps. In reality, however, they only received ineffective drugs. The money wasted on these fake treatments could have been used for legitimate treatment. They let the men die from syphilis and then performed unauthorized autopsies.
The study was a careless and unacceptable abuse of power by people who “regarded their subjects as less than human.” And it is unfortunately not the only example of such a study conducted in the name of “science” and “furthering medical knowledge”. The following news clip highlights how the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a similar experiment in Guatemala during the 1940s, this time actually infecting people with gonorrhea and syphilis. It is likely that this shocking experiment was conceived by dehumanizing the Guatemalan people in the same way that African Americans in Tuskegee were seen as less than human by the creators of the study.
– Kaela Gullion