Tuskegee Experiment: History, Reasons And Criticism

The  Tuskegee experiment  was a long-term clinical study conducted by the United States Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972. The goal of the research was to find out what the effects of syphilis are if no treatment is given to patients. patients who suffer from it.

This experiment is regarded by many as the worst case of immorality in the name of scientific research within the free and developed world. The participants, all of whom were African American men, believed they were receiving treatment for the disease for free; but in reality, they were just being given a placebo.

Taking a blood sample during the Tuskegee experiment. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Public domain]

During the entire time this experiment was conducted, the researchers did not even inform the patients that they had contracted syphilis. Rather, they were told that they were being treated for “bad blood,” a term used to describe a set of symptoms related to various diseases.

Although the Tuskegee experiment was to last only six months, it eventually ended up stretching 40 years. Also, when it was discovered years after the study began that penicillin could kill syphilis, the researchers chose not to treat their patients to see what happened to them.

When what was happening with the Tuskegee experiment was discovered, both public opinion and the scientific community were horrified, to such an extent that new laws and research standards were created to prevent anything similar from happening in the future.

Article index

  • one

    History of the Tuskegee experiment

    • 1.1


    • 1.2

      Why was the experiment carried out?

    • 1.3

      Beginning of the problems

    • 1.4

      Appearance of the first critics

  • two

    End of the Tuskegee experiment

  • 3

    Ethical implications of the study

  • 4


History of the Tuskegee experiment


The Tuskegee experiment began in 1932. At this point in history, syphilis was an intractable disease, causing a large number of deaths each year, especially among the underprivileged population. In addition, there was not much data that was had about her. For this reason, the United States Public Health Service decided to carry out a study to better understand its effects.

Initially, 600 men of African American origin volunteered to participate in the study. The researchers promised them free treatment, food and life insurance for their families, so most of them came from the lower classes.

Of the 600 participants, 399 were infected with syphilis and had it in a latent state. The other 201 were healthy, and were used as a control group. At no point were they informed that they had syphilis or that they were not going to receive any treatment. Rather, they were told that they would be given drugs to treat a fictitious disease known as “bad blood,” a term widely used at the time.

Why was the experiment carried out?

In 1928, a team of Norwegian scientists had studied the effects of untreated syphilis in a group of several hundred white men. However, because they had not been able to study the development of the disease, the conclusions drawn from it were incomplete and could not be used to search for a cure.

Due to this, the group that founded the Tuskegee experiment decided to carry out an investigation in which they could study the effects of the disease from the beginning.

The scientists reasoned that they would not really harm the participants by doing so, since it was highly unlikely that they would receive treatment anyway. Furthermore, they believed that what they discovered would benefit all of humanity.

Thus began the experiment, initially as an epidemiological study that should only last 6 months. At the time, the disease was believed to affect people differently based on their ethnicity, so only African-American participants were chosen. Theoretically, after those six months without treatment, it was necessary to try to cure the patients with the methods available at the time.

However, shortly after the experiment began, the funds available for the experiment were withdrawn. The researchers, desperate to continue their study, decided to change the nature of it and use it to discover the long-term effects of syphilis when left untreated. This is how the Tuskegee experiment really began.

Beginning of the problems

In the beginning, the experiment was carried out in a totally open way, since none of the treatments for syphilis were really effective. However, this changed with the discovery that penicillin could end the disease easily, quickly and without side effects.

When this happened, the researchers realized that if their patients were treated with penicillin, the study would be terminated immediately when the disease was eliminated. Therefore, they decided to do everything they could to prevent the 600 participants from having access to the medicine.

For example, during World War II, 250 of the study participants were drafted to fight in the United States Army; but being infected with the disease, they had to undergo a treatment with penicillin before being able to do so. However, members of the Public Health Service (SSP) prevented this from happening.

Something similar happened after 1947, when the United States government created several public health campaigns to eradicate syphilis and opened rapid treatment centers where anyone could request to be cured with penicillin.

To prevent the experiment participants from coming to them, the scientists lied to them, saying that they were already giving them the cure when in fact they were only giving them placebo.

Appearance of the first critics

The first scientist to openly oppose the Tuskegee experiment was Irwin Schatz, a Chicago physician just out of college. In 1965, Schatz read an article about the study, and decided to write a letter to the researchers in which he said that it was an investigation totally against ethics and morals.

The letter was completely ignored by the investigators; but soon, they began to receive much more criticism. For example, in 1966 a scientist named Peter Buxtun wrote to the commission in charge of the experiment to express the need to terminate it. However, the Center for Disease Control reaffirmed its intention to continue the investigation to the end.

Several other people made individual attempts to shut down the study over the next several years, without success. Finally, in 1972 Buxtun went to the press, and the story was published in the  Washington Star and the New York Times  on July 25. As a result, Senator Edward Keneddy called for further investigation of the experiment.

Thus, in the summer of that same year, a commission of experts examined the conditions of the investigation and decided that it was a study that went against the ethics, and that it was not justified at a medical level. Because of this, the Senate ordered its dismantling.

End of the Tuskegee experiment

When the study was finally closed in 1972, only 74 of the initial 600 participants remained alive. Of the 399 who had started the study with latent syphilis, 28 had died from the disease, but another 100 had done so from complications related to it. As if this were not enough, 40 of his wives had contracted the infection, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.

As part of the compensation for the few participants who were still alive, the United States government had to pay 10 million dollars (equivalent to about 51 million today) and promised to provide free medical treatment to both survivors and to the members of their families who need it.

In addition, to prevent similar situations from reoccurring in the future, the United States Congress created in 1974 a commission to study and regulate any type of scientific study in the country in which people participate.

Over the years, the requirements for conducting an experiment on humans became more stringent, in part due to the Tuskegee experiment.

Years later, in 1997, President Bill Clinton gave a speech in which he publicly apologized on behalf of the government of the country for the events that occurred during the years in which the study was carried out.

Finally, in 2009, the Bioethics Center was created at the Legacy Museum, with the aim of honoring the memory of the hundreds of people who died in the course of the experiment.

Ethical implications of the study

The existence of the Tuskegee experiment and other similar investigations revealed many of the problems that existed in the field of science in the 20th century.

Many of the studies that were conducted in the last century were done without the express consent of their participants. In others, in addition, they were put in danger in order to obtain new data.

Due to the scandal caused by both this experiment and other similar ones, today carrying out an investigation with people is much more complicated.

For a study of this type to be approved, it has to pass a series of very strict criteria designed to prevent the participants from being harmed in any way or from being misled into obtaining concrete results.


  1. “Tuskegee syphilis experiment” in: Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on: September 16, 2019 from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention: cdc.gov.
  2. “Tuskegee syphilis study” in: Brought to Life. Retrieved on: September 16, 2019 from Brought to Life: broughttolife.sciencemuseum.org.uk.
  3. “How the Public Learned About the Infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study” in: Time. Retrieved on: September 16, 2019 from Time: time.com.
  4. “‘You Don’t Treat Dogs That Way’: The Horrifying Story Of The Tuskegee Experiment” in: All That Is Interesting. Retrieved on: September 16, 2019 from All That Is Interesting: allthatsinteresting.com.
  5. “Tuskegee syphilis experiment” in: Wikipedia. Retrieved on: September 16, 2019 from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org.

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