Gallery D

Tuskeege Horrors

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Oliver Wenger’s Syphilis "Experiment" On Black Men

By James Donahue

It was called the Tuskegee Study and it was conducted by the venereal disease section of the U.S. Public Health Service for 40 terrible years, between 1932 and 1972. It bears the name of Tuskegee University, a well-known black college in Alabama, which helped sponsor this wicked study. It involved a team of researchers who watched the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African American men who were tricked into thinking they were receiving free health care from their government.

The project appears to have been started by medical people who had good intentions. It was the idea of Dr. Teliaferro Clark, the head of the Health Service. His plan was to test the incidence of syphilis in the poor local population in and around Macon County, Alabama. The testing was supposed to last six months, after which the volunteer subjects would be treated for the disease.

The project quickly got out of control. Clark resigned after he learned that other participating medical people had no intention of ever treating the men who signed up for the study. Oliver C. Wenger, then director of the Health Service’s Venereal Disease Clinic at Hot Springs, Arkansas, replaced Clark as director of the Tuskegee Study and turned it into a long-term, no-treatment torture center for the illiterate blacks who thought they were getting free government help.

Also high on the list of specialists participating in the "study" was Dr. Eugene Dibble, then head of the John Andrew Hospital at what was then known as the Tuskegee Institute; Dr. Raymond H. Vonderlehr, who became the on-site director of the study and Dr. John R. Heller, who succeeded Vonderlehr as director of the section from 1943-1948. Heller was there when the decision was made to deny the patients treatment with penicillin. He was still alive when the horrors of the program were exposed. It appears that Dr. John C. Cutler succeeded Heller. Cutler was acting chief of the venereal disease program for the Health Service in 1972 when everything hit the fan.

The 399 men caught up in the study were never told what was wrong with them. They were just told they had "bad blood." Even when penicillin was developed in the 1940s and found to be an effective cure for syphilis, the participants in the Tuskegee Study were denied the treatment.

It goes without saying that the men who participated in the study went through the horrible stages of suffering and eventual death that syphilis causes. This included terrible skin lesions, organ shutdowns, paralysis, cardiovascular problems, blindness, neurological problems and even insanity. Their wives also acquired syphilis, and many of their children were born with congenital syphilis. The government financed the cost of their coffins.

It is hard to believe that this terrible "study" was allowed to continue for as long as it did. It wasn’t until 1972 when Peter Buxtun, a Public Health Service Investigator, told reporters for the Associated Press about the project. The news stories that broke finally brought an end to the notorious Tuskegee Study. Congressional hearings were held and a multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit was settled out of court for $10 million. It wasn’t until President Bill Clinton issued an official apology to the men and their families in 1997 that the issue was really concluded. By then, there were only eight survivors out of about 600 victims that had been caught up in the study.

What is even worse is that nothing of medical importance ever came out of the so-called "study." It appeared to amount to a program of government financed torture and murder of illiterate southern black men and their families.

There should be little wonder today why black families. . . expecially those living in the southern states . . . have a problem trusting federal assistance programs.

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