The Tuskegee syphilis experiment (also known as the Tuskegee syphilis study or Public Health Service syphilis study) was a clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama, by the U.S. Public Health Service. Investigators recruited 399 impoverished African-American sharecroppers with syphilis for research related to the natural progression of the untreated disease.
The Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute, began the study in 1932. Nearly 400 poor black men with syphilis from Macon County, Ala., were enrolled in the study. 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.
For participating in the study, the men were given free medical exams, free meals and free burial insurance.
The 40-year study was controversial for reasons related to ethical standards, primarily because researchers failed to treat patients appropriately after the 1940s validation of penicillin as an effective cure for the disease. Revelation of study failures led to major changes in U.S. law and regulation on the protection of participants in clinical studies. Now studies require informed consent (with exceptions possible for U.S. Federal agencies which can be kept secret by Executive Order), communication of diagnosis, and accurate reporting of test results.
By 1947 penicillin had become the standard treatment for syphilis. Choices might have included treating all syphilitic subjects and closing the study, or splitting off a control group for testing with penicillin. Instead, the Tuskegee scientists continued the study, withholding penicillin and information about it from the patients.
In addition, scientists prevented participants from accessing syphilis treatment programs available to others in the area. The study continued, under numerous supervisors, until 1972, when a leak to the press resulted in its termination. Victims included numerous men who died of syphilis, wives who contracted the disease, and children born with congenital syphilis.