Local News

Tuskegee Experiment's Legacy: Lack of Trust

Posted May 17, 1997 12:00 a.m. EDT

— Sixty-five years after the federal government undertook its syphilis research project on unsuspecting African-American men, President Clinton apologized to the survivors and all victims' families.

In 1932, the government recruited 399 men from an area around Tuskegee, Ala., for syphilis research. The indigent men, most of them sharecroppers, were told they were receiving free medical treatment for "bad blood." The men were not told they had syphilis, nor were they ever treated for the disease, even after penicillin was found to be a cure in the 1940s.

The program was not known publicly until the early 70s, at which time the survivors were treated for the disease.

The government's attitude towards the men is seen by many people as one more example of racist policies and of disregard for human beings. It also has contributed to a distrust of government, according to many African-Americans.

Tangela Gray of Raleigh said the Tuskegee Experiment is but one circumstance that demands apology. Gray believes that slavery and the rape of black women also should be addressed.

Martesa Wills, also of Raleigh, said she feels it is part of a pattern of not looking at African-Americans on the whole as "not being human, just like animals or monkeys or something that they can just test experimentally however they feel."

Ken Alston has been a science professor for 16 years, and says some of the concerns that African-Americans have about the government are valid.

Alston predicts that the Tuskegee Experiment will go down in history as one of the great unethical acts committed against a race.

"You have those individuals in society who will stop at nothing to gain scientific information at the expense of human suffering," Alston said.

The experiment was finally ended in the early 70s. Twenty-eight men died from syphilis and 100 died from related illnesses. Of the eight still alive, five of them attended Clinton's national apology ceremony. One man, Fred Simmons, said he is 110; the other men are in their 90s.

The government has paid $10 million in compensation to the victims and heirs of victims in settlement of a class-action suit. Clinton's was the first apology from a national leader.

In a statement issued after Clinton's apology, the National Medical Association, the oldest African-American national professional medical association, noted, "The legacy of this horrible experiment, which lasted 40 years, continues to affect African-Americans today and has led to a sense of fear and general mistrust of the medical research process and the scientific community.

"As a consequence, African-Americans continue to suffer disproportionately from many diseases and health problems. African Americans are under-represented in clinical research, so new treatment protocols and health policies are based on racially biased clinical studies that further deny our communities the benefits of scientific advances."

Tuskegee Institution, a historically black Alabama college, had no involvement with the experiments.