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Black History Month: Four Major Historical Examples of Racism in American Medicine

There are many examples of exploitation and mistreatment of Black people in the healthcare system. These are four of the most extreme.

Despite advances over the decades in medicine and medical technology,  for many years the healthcare industry has delivered negligent care rooted in systemic bias to Black communities. There is a long history of mistreatment and exploitation of Black people in the health care system. Black patients are more likely to experience systemic racism in health care, according to several studies.

Below are four major historical incidents of racism in medicine that are permanently cemented in medical studies.

  • The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

    Beginning in 1932 and lasting until 1972, 600 Black men in Tuskegee, Ala., were experimented on to see the effects of syphilis in the human body in a government-sanctioned project. According to historical records, 399 were infected and another 201 were uninfected as a control, most of them poor sharecroppers from the area.

    The research was conducted on the campus of the then-Tuskegee Institute by the U.S. Public Health Service.

    The men, who were mostly illiterate, were not informed they were part of a medical study, were attracted by offers of high quality health care rarely received by their peers. But instead of being given medicines to treat syphilis, which were available by 1947, they were told they simply had “bad blood.” Prior to 1947, however, dozens of men had died and their wives and children infected.

    In 1972, the Associated Press reported about the 40-year experiment on Black men taking place under the guise of a medical study. That prompted a considerable backlash and, ultimately, a panel blasted the poor ethics of those involved. The study officially ended that year. A 1973 class-action lawsuit on behalf of the victims resulted in a $9 million settlement.

  • Ferguson v. City of Charleston

    In 1989, the Medical University of South Carolina implemented a program that involuntarily and unconstitutionally tested pregnant women in Greenville, S.C., who were looking to receive prenatal care, for traces of cocaine in their system. A positive result would result in the immediate arrest of women seeking treatment. Out of the 30 women arrested, 29 of them were Black. According to the ACLU, one woman spent the final three weeks of her pregnancy in jail, receiving prenatal care in shackles.

    The program was dropped by MUSC in 1994 when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services investigated whether the university had violated the civil rights of its Black patients.

    But a group of women who had been arrested as a result of the program brought suit against the MUSC and the City of Charleston, charging violations of their Fourth Amendment rights. The jury found that the women had consented and ruled in favor of the city and the hospital. But the case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    The court held that the search was, in fact, unconstitutional. In the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: “While state hospital employees, like other citizens, may have a duty to provide the police with evidence of criminal conduct…they have a special obligation to make sure that the patients are fully informed about their constitutional rights.”

  • J. Marion Sims’ Procedures on Enslaved Black Women

    The 19th-century physician was known for years as the “father of modern gynecology” but he received that moniker through brutalmeans. While he contributed to the development of gynecology tools we use today, these techniques were developed through the use of enslaved women in experimentation. In a hospital he built in Montgomery, Ala., in the 1840s, specifically for treating Black women, and was said to be the first to treat a vesicovaginal fistula, which is an opening between the bladder and the wall of the vagina.

    But between 1845 and 1849, he performed experimental surgery on at least 12 subjects who were enslaved Black women, attempting to perfect his fistula repair methods. But on at least three women, he did not use any anesthetic, adhering to a popular social belief that Black people did not feel pain the same way whites did. One woman died of sepsis as he operated on her in front of other physicians. After he perfected his technique, he later moved to New York, where he did perform the procedure on white women, whom he did give anesthesia.

    A statue of him in New York’s Central Park was removed in 2018 after multiple calls for its removal after his history of mutilation of Black women was unearthed.

  • The Cincinnati Radiation Experiments

    From 1960 to 1971, Dr. Eugene Sanger, a radiologist from the University of Cincinnati conducted exploitative experiments on 88 terminal cancer patients by overuse of radiation. The patients, who came from poor backgrounds, were 60 percent Black and aged 9 to 84. They were told they were being given a treatment that would help them fight their illnesses. They were not given consent forms, nor were they informed that the Pentagon was behind funding the project. At the time, the Cold War between the west and the then-Soviet Union was increasing, creating military interest in the effects of radiation from nuclear weapons.

    In a period of an hour, patients were exposed to up to 300 rads, or the equivalent of 20,000 chest x-rays, well above the amount of radiation exposure that is considered safe. Of the total number of patients experimented on in the 11-year-study, a quarter are believed to have died from the radiation exposure. Saenger openly admitted to what he was doing and defended his actions as necessary. He was never implicated with any crime and continued to practice medicine at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center until his retirement in 1987. The families of patients who died in the experiments won a $5.4 million settlement in 1999.

    Saenger died in 2007 at age 90. A fund at the university still continues to bear his name.

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    Color Of Change is the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. Visit www.colorofchange.org and follow on social @ColorOfChange.

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