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1932"A Study in Nature"

Tuskegee Experiment

Photograph of Tuskegee Syphilis Study participants

Six men subjected to the Tuskegee Experiment

Photograph of Administering "treatment" for the Tuskegee Experiment

Administering "treatment" for the Tuskegee Experiment

Photograph of Administering "treatment" for the Tuskegee Experiment

Administering "treatment" for the Tuskegee Experiment

In 1932 the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) began recruiting 600 African American men from Macon County, Alabama to participate in a scientific experiment on syphilis. The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” involved blood tests, x-rays, spinal taps and autopsies of the subjects but no treatment.

The goal of the study was to observe the natural progression of untreated syphilis but participants were told they were receiving treatment for “bad blood,” a term commonly used to describe a variety of illnesses. The men were given no treatment, even after penicillin was discovered as a cure for syphilis in 1945, over ten years later. Medical researchers justified lying to these men by saying that Black men were not inclined to seek medical care.

The USPHS went to great lengths to prevent the men in their study from accessing treatment. They provided doctors in Macon County and the Alabama Health Department with lists of participants and asked them not to treat them. When many of the men were drafted during World War II, military doctors discovered their syphilis during the entrance medical exam. USPHS researchers had them removed from the military instead of providing treatment. The experiment ended in 1972, forty years after it began, when The New York Times published a story on the front page. By the time the experiment ended, only 74 men were still alive. The NAACP successfully sued USPHS for 10 million dollars; the money was paid to victims and infected family members. The experiment had lasting impact. Even today, as a result of the Tuskegee Experiment, some African Americans are hesitant to receive government-issued vaccinations.