History in Review
The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy
By Susan M. Reverby
The University of North Carolina Press, 2009
A Book Review by Angela Evans - January 31, 2011
Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy is an eye-opening account of the medical research study of syphilis that was conducted in Tuskegee, Alabama. The study ran from about 1932 through 1972, and over the years a number of stories have grown up around this study. These include rumors that African-American men were purposely infected with syphilis, to stories about men being left to die without treatment, just so that the researches could chart the progress of the disease. In Examining Tuskegee, Susan M. Reverby separates the fact from the fiction, and presents a concise and informative account of the study, and it aftermath.
The study was conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service, in conjunction with the Tuskegee Institute. The purpose of the study was essentially, to study the course of untreated syphilis. Controversy surrounded the study from its inception because of the 400 or so men in the study who had, or were presumed to have, late-stage syphilis. Many of the men were never informed that they had syphilis, and those that knew they were infected were given the impression that they would be given treatment for the disease. They were never informed that they were simply to be followed as the disease took its natural course. In exchange for being used a human guinea pigs and for giving their permission to be given an autopsy upon death, the men where given food, medical exams of uncertain value, and burial insurance.
Initially, as Reverby points out, the researches can be given a pass for not treating the subjects, as those treatments there were available before the advent of penicillin, were just a likely, if not more so, to be more deadly to the patient then the underlaying disease. However, once penicillin became available and was shown to be effective in treating syphilis, the denial of treatment to the subjects was unethical at best, and by modern standards, criminal. In the aftermath of the study, especially after it became public knowledge, issues such as informed consent and ethical standards in medical research came to the fore and many strides have been made in this area due to the notoriety of the study.
Within the course of this book, Reverby examines how and why the study was conceived, who the researchers were and what their motivations were, the role played by the Tuskegee Institute in the study, and who the men where that became the subjects of ths study. Reverby also examines how the study was carried out, and what the effect of the study was on the men enrolled in it and their families. Perhaps, most important, she explains why and how the study ended, how information about the study was brought to the attention of the general population, and what the long term repercussions of the study have been since it ended.
Reverby, who also edited, Tuskegee's Truths, does an excellent job in this book of presenting the complete story of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in presenting all sides of the story. This book contains extensive endnotes and a bibliography. Examining Tuskegee is essential reading for anyone interested in learning the truth about this dark moment in American medical history.
Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, By Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad.
An in-depth look at America's secret biological warfare research and the current efforts underway to thwart a biological attack, and the threat posed by biological weapons, and bioterroism.
Smallpox, Syphilis and Salvation, by Sheryl Persson.
A history of some of the most momentous medical breakthroughs of the modern age from the vaccine for smallpox to the discovery of penicillin, interwoven with biographies of the researchers who made these breakthroughs possible.
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