Accusations of racism, egregious harm and betrayal (lack of informed consent) are common features of the horror-story account. A sober representation in this genre might state that the Tuskegee syphilis study was 'a US Public Health Service experiment that allowed 400 black males of Tuskegee to go unknowingly without syphilis medication for 40 years simply to satisfy the medical profession's curiosity about what happens to people when they aren't cured of venereal disease' (3).
The implication of that statement, of course, is that the syphilis infections of the residents of Macon County in 1932 could have been cured, yet vulnerable black men were kept ignorant of their condition and left to suffer because of the racist attitudes at the Public Health Service - and that all this was done in the name of callous science by researchers who had no real interest in the public good or the welfare of members of a poor minority group in the South.
* * *
I also learned that the therapies of that era were in fact so weak, hazardous, lengthy, costly and difficult to administer that very few people with syphilis were willing to tolerate the drugs for the full course of the treatment. Most patients (perhaps 85 per cent) simply voted with their feet and gave up on the 'therapy'. Of those who did suffer through the full treatment (it could take more than a year and required carefully monitored intravenous administration of the drug) relatively few patients were ever cured of the syphilis infection or protected against its potentially damaging effects because of those therapies.
Indeed, one of the most astonishing facts about the disease (at least to those of us who are not medical scientists, or who naively associate syphilis with the demise and devastation of Frederick Nietzsche) is that, after the early stages of infection, the vast majority of people who have untreated syphilis either remain asymptomatic all of their lives or else spontaneously recover from the disease. For most people, a syphilis infection is either a self-limiting or self-correcting disease, and in the 1930s the degree to which doing something (a year of protoplasmic arsenic poisoning) was better than doing nothing at all was at the very least uncertain, and was thus a matter of urgent medical and scientific concern.
* * *
I also learned that the study emerged out of a liberal progressive public health movement concerned about the health and wellbeing of the African-American population. The study was done with the full knowledge, endorsement and participation of African-American medical professionals, hospitals and research institutes.