Tag Archives: Tuskegee

Legacy of Tuskegee and other medical racism lives on today

Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr.

In two previous posts, I discussed the history of the U.S. Public Health Service study at Tuskegee, 50 years after it was revealed to the nation. I also shared the perspectives of a Black epidemiologist and a Black HIV primary care physician on what the study’s legacy means now.

In this post, I share the perspectives of two Black psychiatrists and a Black colorectal surgeon on how the study at Tuskegee reverberates through Black communities today.

Key takeaways

  • Every field of medicine has its examples of racism, such as the theory of “drapetomania” in enslaved people and “protest psychosis” in civil rights leaders and protesters in the field of psychiatry.
  • The distrust many Black people have of the medical system is well earned, so “we have to continue to actively work to increase diversity and representation in medicine” and “educate current medical providers, so we don’t continue to repeat the mistakes of the past and harm patients.”
  • The legacy of what the Tuskegee experiment was about — withholding treatment — continues to play out in health care access issues that impact Black communities.
  • While the experiment began in the 1930s, its revelation 50 years ago is not the distant past and still lives on today.

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“Many Tuskegees” occur daily in the U.S. 

Epidemiologist Dara Mendez, Ph.D., M.P.H., pediatrician Diane Rowley, M.D., epidemiologist Theresa Chapple-McGruder, Ph.D., and epidemiologist Bill Jenkins, Ph.D., who blew the whistle on the experiment at Tuskegee while working at the U.S. Public Health Service, gather at the 2017 meeting of the American Public Health Association. (Photo courtesy of Theresa Chapple)

When writing about the 50th anniversary of the revelation of the U.S. Public Health Service study at Tuskegee, I reached out to several Black health care professionals to ask for their perspectives on the study’s legacy a half-century later. Five women — an epidemiologist, two psychiatrists, a surgeon, and an HIV primary care physician — offered their insight. This post shares two of those perspectives, one focused on the man who blew the whistle on the experiment and the other on how the legacy of the experiment at Tuskegee is playing out with monkeypox.

Key takeaways

  • The whistleblower who ensured the world found out about the U.S. Public Health Service study at Tuskegee, Bill Jenkins, Ph.D., has also been a role model to Black epidemiologists in showing how to stand up to racism within the system.
  • Although the “Tuskegee study” is a convenient shorthand, it’s more appropriate and accurate to refer to the experiment as the ”U.S. Public Health Service study at Tuskegee” to keep the blame on the perpetrators rather than the victims.
  • The experiment at Tuskegee lives on in a collective memory of those in the Black community even when they don’t necessarily know the details of the specific study.
  • The distrust many in the Black community have toward the health care system is less about this one experiment than is “the everyday interactions” they have today, as “many Tuskegees” are occurring all the time.
  • The rollout of the monkeypox vaccine demonstrates how treatment is being denied to Black communities that need it.

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The Tuskegee Syphilis Study revelation’s legacy 50 years later

Photograph of participants in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (Photo courtesy of National Archives)

It’s been 50 years ago last month since the nation learned about one of the most shameful and consequential chapters in U.S. medical research (and there’s a fair bit to pick from). In the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” the U.S. Public Health Service enrolled 600 Black male sharecroppers from Tuskegee, Alabama, and intentionally withheld information and treatment from approximately 200 of the 399 Black men who had syphilis while researchers studied how the disease affected their life course.

Key takeaways for journalists

  • An understanding of health care racial/ethnic disparities is essential for ethical reporting on health and medicine.
  • The Tuskegee Study is a consequence of U.S. institutional racism and false beliefs about Black men, and it’s one contributor to health care disparities among Black Americans today.
  • A basic familiarity with the facts of the Tuskegee Study is crucial for health reporters to know.
  • Part of the Tuskegee Study’s enduring legacy contributes to the mistrust and/or skepticism many Black Americans have regarding health care and medicine.
  • The Tuskegee Study alone is not the primary driver of Black mistrust in health care and should not be dismissively used as a scapegoat to explain a complex phenomenon informed by people’s personal experience, a long history of personal and structural racism in U S. health care, and the continuing systemic racism that exists in U.S. health care and medicine.

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