The Tuskegee Experiment, a controversial clinical study carried out between 1932 and 1972, was an experiment conducted on primarily African American men in Macon County, Alabama. These men were being used to study the effects of untreated syphilis, but did not give consent nor were they properly advised of their diagnosis.
The participants were in fact sick, but while being “cared for” by researchers, many were only given placebos such as aspirin and mineral supplements. Because no effective care was being provided, many of the participants eventually went blind, lost their minds, or experienced other severe health problems due to their untreated syphilis. Others died.
In 1960, Peter Buxton, a U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) venereal disease investigator in San Francisco, expressed his concerns to his superiors that it was unethical after learning about the Tuskegee study. As a result, PHS officials formed a committee to review the study and later opted to continue it.
In 1972, Jean Heller of the Associated Press broke the story to mainstream media. This prompted public outrage from Black communities all across the country and forced the study to be discontinued. It led to the 1979 Belmont Report and the creation of the National Human Investigation Board. It also led to the creation of the Institutional Review Board, an independent ethics committee that reviews the methods proposed for research to ensure that they are ethical. A settlement of $10 million was also awarded to the surviving participants and the heirs of the deceased.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology from the White House, stating, “The United States government did something that was wrong — deeply, profoundly, morally wrong… It is not only in remembering that shameful past that we can make amends and repair our nation, but it is in remembering that past that we can build a better present and a better future.”