Fifty years ago, American journalist Jean Heller published an article on a shocking US government disease study that killed 161 African Americans. In exchange for participating in the study conducted in Alabama, African Americans would receive free medical visits and meals. But they did not know that a third of them would not receive any treatment for anemia, fatigue and syphilis. The consequences of this flawed study continue to be felt today in the African American community.
On July 25, 1972, Jean Heller, an investigative reporter for the Associated Press, then 29 years old, shocked the world with a story on what is now known as the “Tuskegee Study.”
Heller was reporting on the Democratic National Convention in 1972 when a colleague handed him an envelope containing information from a former local United States Public Health Service official.
The envelope contained documents showing how, for four decades, the United States government had denied hundreds of poor African-Americans treatment for sexually transmitted diseases so researchers could observe their toll on the human body.
Journalist Heller got the confirmation she needed in a medical journal that had been following the “progress” of the study.
“Despite the injustices against African Americans that existed in 1932, when the study began, I could not believe that an agency of the federal government could allow a flawed study to continue for 40 years.” says reporter Heller.
Beginning in 1932, the Public Health Service, in cooperation with the famous Tuskegee Institute, began recruiting black men in Macon County, Alabama. The researchers told them they needed to be treated for “bad blood,” a term used to describe several ailments, including anemia, fatigue, and syphilis. Their treatment at that time was mainly done with doses of arsenic and mercury.
In exchange for their participation, African Americans would receive free medical examinations, free food, and burial expenses covered, provided the government was allowed to perform an autopsy.
In the end, more than 600 men signed up. What they were not told was that about a third would not receive any treatment, even though penicillin began to be used in the 1940s.
Lillie Tyson Head’s father, Freddie Lee Tyson, was one of the participants who did not receive any treatment.
“They told all the participants that they would be treated for their illnesses. But they were not treated,” says Mrs. Head, president of the Voices for the Heritage of Our Fathers Foundation.
By the time Heller’s article was published, at least seven of the men in the study had died as a direct result of the pain caused in the clinical trials, and another 154 from heart disease.
Nearly four months after the news broke, the study was discontinued.
The study continues to cast a heavy shadow over the country, as many African-Americans cite the Tuskegee study as an excuse not to seek medical treatment or participate in clinical trials.
“We can’t forget what happened at Tuskegee. In a way, COVID helped keep the lessons learned from the Tuskegee study alive,” says Ms. Heller, who retired from journalism and now writes novels.
For Ms. Head and other descendants, it is important to reinterpret the story about the study and the African Americans who participated in it.
“The men who participated in this study were somebody’s boyfriends. They were somebody’s sons.” says Mrs. Head.