The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male occured from 1932 to 1972, where doctors deliberately refused to treat Black men suffering from the condition. It’s viewed as one of the cruelest examples of medical experimentation on human beings in American history.
Doctors from the United States Public Health Service conducted the study on poor farmers in Macon County, Ala., using the then Tuskegee Institute as a base for the study. They also tapped the medical staff at Tuskegee's John Andrews Hospital, all of whom were Black and all who had been trained at the Tuskegee Institute.
There have been many viewpoints on the complicity these individuals should own. Some say they knowingly participated in an experiment on vulnerable people who share their race, while others agree with the claim that individuals genuinely thought they were helping get medical care and benefits that these poor Black men would otherwise never have had.
Despite the backlash that resulted after the Associated Press ran an investigative series on the study, the nurse assigned to care for the men, drawing blood, and helping to administer their medical checkups, always maintained that it was the latter and pushed back against the criticism.
The 1997 film "Miss Evers Boys" is based upon Eunice Rivers’ story – her experience caring for her patients and yet historical debate continues about just how much she really knew and how much she was to blame.
BET.com obtained a 1977 audio interview from the Harvard University Schlesinger Library's “Black Women Oral History Project” in which Rivers discusses her life and career in nursing. In the dialogue with interviewer A. Lillian Thompson, she discusses her role in the Tuskegee Study.
The following are excerpts from that interview.
In this excerpt, Rivers describes how she became involved with the study after working for the Tuskegee Institute Movable School. She explains the conditions in Macon County at the time as well as the increasing spread of syphilis in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Most importantly, Rivers talks about how doctors viewed the effect of syphilis as behaving “differently” in Black patients than comparatively in White patients.
Conducting the study
In the segment below, Rivers goes into how the study was conducted and how the men were recruited. She reveals that newly diagnosed syphilitic patients were not selected in favor of those with later stages of the disease. She can also be heard calling the criticism of the study, which came out years later, “unfair.”
Finally, in this third segment, Rivers describes the end of the study. She does not go into why it ended, but does defend what the men were supposed to have received from it. She also talks about her own relationship with the men and her protective feelings towards them.
Historical analysis continues to focus on whether or not Rivers was a participant in what many describe as “a Nazi-like experiment on Black men” that went on for 40 years. She was viewed as the buffer between the men and a government that deliberately sought to mistreat them.
However, what is actually factual is that Rivers and those at Tuskegee were only a handful of the people in Alabama working at the time in public health. Most Black people in the area could not afford regular medical care, let alone cardiograms, x-rays or medication. At the time Dr. Eugene Dibble, who led Tuskegee's John Andrews Hospital, saw the study as a unique opportunity for better training for his staff. Informed consent as a concept in medical practice was decades away and largely did not materialize until the study became public years later.
Nonetheless, at least 28 men died as a direct result of having untreated syphilis. Many also passed the disease to their wives and ultimately their unborn children. None of the men ever actually consented to be in a study of this kind and the records show that they were told they had to remain untreated, even with the availability of penicillin, if they had any chance to receive the benefits the study offered. No person who worked for the USPHS, the Department of Health Education and Welfare or Tuskegee were ever held criminally liable. A group of men eventually filed a class action lawsuit and were awarded a total of $10 million in 1973. A formal apology was issued in a ceremony by former President Bill Clinton in 1997.
Rivers died in 1986 at the age of 86.