It was one of the most infamous episodes in American history. For 40 years, from 1932 to 1972, the United States government conducted a study on the progression of untreated syphilis in poor, rural Black men who thought they were receiving free health care.
The study, conducted by the United States Public Health Service at Tuskegee Institute, involved 600 poor Black sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama, nearly 400 of whom had had previously contracted syphilis before the study began and 201 without the disease. For participating in the study, the men were given free medical care, meals and free burial insurance. They were never told they had syphilis, nor were they ever treated for it. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the men were told they were being treated for "bad blood," a local term used to describe several illnesses, including syphilis, anemia and fatigue.
On July 25, 1972, the government acknowledged its role in the project, after a leak to the media eventually resulted in its termination. Still, the disclosure unleashed a torrent of criticism as a result of numerous men who died of syphilis, wives who contracted the disease and children born with congenital syphilis. The outrage also led to federal laws and regulations requiring Institutional Review Boards for the protection of human subjects in studies involving human subjects.
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