The Tuskegee Syphilis Study remains an ignominious milestone in the intertwined histories of race and medical science in U.S. society. Initiated in 1932, this tragic 40-year long public health project resulted in almost 400 impoverished and unwitting African American men in Macon County, Ala., being left untreated for syphilis.
Although medical experimentation with human subjects has historically involved vulnerable groups, including children, the poor and the institutionalized, Washington enumerates how black Americans have disproportionately borne the burden of the most invasive, inhumane and perilous medical investigations, from the era of slavery to the present day. (This burden has become global in the last few decades.) In 1855, John “Fed” Brown, an escaped slave, recalled that the doctor to whom he was indentured produced painful blisters on his body in order to observe “how deep my black skin went.” This study had no therapeutic value. Rather, fascination with the outward appearance of African Americans, whose differences from whites were thought to be more than skin deep, was a significant impulse driving such medical trials.
The infringement of black Americans’ rights to their own bodies in the name of medical science continued throughout the 20th century. In 1945, Ebb Cade, an African American trucker being treated for injuries received in an accident in Tennessee, was surreptitiously placed without his consent into a radiation experiment sponsored by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Black Floridians were deliberately exposed to swarms of mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and other diseases in experiments conducted by the Army and the CIA in the early 1950s. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, black inmates at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison were used as research subjects by a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist testing pharmaceuticals and personal hygiene products; some of these subjects report pain and disfiguration even now. During the 1960s and ’70s, black boys were subjected to sometimes paralyzing neurosurgery by a University of Mississippi researcher who believed brain pathology to be the root of the children’s supposed hyperactive behavior. In the 1990s, African American youths in New York were injected with Fenfluramine — half of the deadly, discontinued weight loss drug Fen-Phen — by Columbia researchers investigating a hypothesis about the genetic origins of violence.