In 1932, public health researchers set out to study syphilis, particularly among African-Americans, who had higher infection rates than whites. They recruited 399 black men who already had syphilis. The doctors infected no one. In fact, the patients were selected in the first place because they were tertiary-stage syphilitics who were no longer contagious.
The researchers studied the progress of the disease, without treating it, for 40 years.
Prior to the availability of penicillin in the 1940s and 1950s, the researchers couldn’t have treated the men even if they wanted to. Even after standardized penicillin treatments were available, it wasn’t clear that the patients could have been helped. Some of the doctors believed that treating the decades-long infections would kill the men.
“The study was done with the full knowledge, endorsement and participation of African-American medical professionals, hospitals and research institutes.”
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