by Jared Taylor:
American Renaissance`s Conferences: Talking About
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Tuskegee syphilis study ranks almost with
lynching as a symbol of
America`s racist past. There is probably not one
black American adult who does not know—or thinks he
knows—about an experiment from the 1930s in which
government health authorities deliberately withheld
treatment from 400 black syphilitics just to see what
would happen to them.
In some versions of story, the
government deliberately infected the men. At the very
least, the authorities are said to have been guilty of
withholding the effective treatments that became
available in the 1950s.
Blacks often cite fear of
"another Tuskegee" to
explain why few of them cooperate with
public health programs or donate
organs for transplant. They never know when white
doctors might experiment on them.
Richard Shweder of the University of Chicago has
just published a detailed analysis of the Tuskegee study
in which he shows that virtually every popular
assumption about it is false. (Tuskegee
re-examined, January 8, 2004)
The study was undertaken by "progressives"
who wanted to fight a disease that afflicted many
blacks, it had the full support of black medical
authorities to the end, and—most important—it probably
caused no harm to the 140 men (not 400) who took part.
The U.S. Public Health Service
started the study in 1932 in Macon County, Alabama,
where syphilis rates for blacks ranged between 20 and 36
At the time, there were a number of
treatments for the disease but they were complicated,
disagreeable, and not very effective. They involved a
year-long series of carefully-monitored intravenous
injections of an arsenic compound that had such
unpleasant side-effects that fully 85 percent of
patients dropped out before treatment was complete. Of
the 15 percent who stuck it out, few were cured.
Public health officials knew they
needed better drugs. But they also needed a baseline to
which they could compare the results of treatment. This
was why they wanted to know what happens if there was no
As Prof. Shweder explains, syphilis
is not always the raging killer most of us think it is.
First of all, it is only in the early stages of the
disease, when sores appear on the body, that it is
contagious. This was the only stage at which arsenic had
any effect at all. After that, syphilis goes into a
latent state, in which there are no symptoms, and the
patient is not infectious. Untreated syphilis can then
go on the tertiary stage and destroy vital organs like
the heart and brain—this is what happened to famous
victims like Nietzsche—but for perhaps 80 percent of
syphilitics, the disease stays latent, as if they never
had it. The longer the disease is latent, the longer it
is likely to stay that way. It is, in Professor
Shweder`s terms, "self-limiting or self-correcting."
Today, most public information
campaigns don`t emphasize this. Health authorities
trumpet the potential for devastation rather than tell
people they have a good chance of escaping unscathed.
The Illinois Department of Health is the exception in
untreated, syphilis then lapses into a latent stage
during which the disease is no longer contagious and no
symptoms are present. Many people who are not treated
will suffer no further consequences of the disease."
It was this latent stage that
health authorities wanted to investigate in 1932.
Consequently, when they examined 410 syphilitic blacks
for possible inclusion in the study, they found many
were in the early, infectious stage, and rejected them
as candidates. They turned over no fewer than 178 for
the standard arsenic treatment, and kept 140 for the
study. They then checked up on these men at rather
lengthy intervals—in 1938, 1948, 1952, and 1963—giving
them full physical examinations, and treating them for
any disease other than syphilis.
nurse named Eunice Rivers ran the program, keeping
in close contact with the men to make sure they did not
drift out of touch. She was apparently a remarkable
woman who created something of a social club around the
The outset of the program was
therefore entirely unobjectionable. The men had already
entered the latency stage of syphilis, for which the
standard and largely ineffective cure of the day was no
good at all. Foregoing that was no hardship, and in
exchange they got free medical checkups and the benefits
of Nurse Rivers` kind attention. The authorities at
Booker T. Washington`s
Tuskegee Institute blessed the study.
By the mid-1950s, however,
penicillin became available as a standard cure for
syphilis. Should not the Public Health Service have
stopped the study and treated the men? Wasn`t it
"racist" not to?
No. By the 1950s, the men had been
infected for 20 or 25 years. Some number had died of
heart disease probably brought on by tertiary syphilis,
but for those who were still alive in the 1950s, the
disease had very likely run its course. Ninety men were
still part of the program at the time of the last
examination in 1963. Penicillin treatment, even when it
first became available, would probably have done them no
good. Prof. Shweder suggests that by then these men may
well have had life expectancies as high as black men of
the same age who had never had syphilis at all!
It is possible, of course, to
criticize the study on he grounds that its subjects did
not give "informed consent." No one explained the
rationale of the study to them, other than to say they
had "bad blood" (the euphemism for syphilis at
the time), and that their occasional medical
examinations had something to do with it. However, as
Professor Shweder points out, the concept of
"informed consent" did not exist in 1932. It was
common for doctors to
tell their patients very little, whether they were
black or white. Shweder goes on to argue that since
there was little harm to the men and some benefit, the
Public Health Service would probably have had no
shortage of subjects even if it had explained every
detail at every stage.
Of course, the study finally was
stopped in 1972, hardly helped by press coverage like
that of the New York Times, which titled its July
26 story of that year, "Syphilis Victims in U.S.
Study Went Untreated for 40 Years."
Not even the redoubtable Eunice
Rivers was able to fight off the terrible cloud that
descended on the program. It has gained a permanent
place in the lore of American "racism."
The "Tuskegee Study of Untreated
Syphilis in the Negro Male," as it was officially
called, is probably beyond redemption. The standard
version of white perfidy probably cannot be displaced
any more than the truth about
America`s World War II relocation camps can displace
the common conviction that they were
"concentration camps" in which
Japanese were forcibly interned.
Nor is this process of falsifying
history in ways that discredit whites over. It is now
that DNA evidence has proven
Thomas Jefferson fathered illegitimate children with
Sally Hemings, even though it has
done no such thing.
So many whites so badly want to
hear the worst about themselves they can hardly let the
truth spoil a good yarn about "racism."
Jared Taylor (email
him) is editor of
American Renaissance and the author of
Paved With Good Intentions: The Failure of Race
Relations in Contemporary America. (For Peter
Brimelow`s review, click
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