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People are considered curious by nature and always ask questions about various phenomena surrounding them. Studies and researches can help find answers to these questions. Mankind made a substantial step in scientific development with the help of numerous experiments. It is necessary to appreciate considerable results of scientific studies and experiments conducted in the XX century. Nonetheless, some of them could be regarded unethical, as their results were received due to questionable methods. The research into syphilis in Tuskegee is one of such unethical experiments that caused sufferings to its participants.
Prehistory of the Experiment
Syphilis occurred on the planet practically simultaneously with the emergence of people. In the Hindu Vedas, the disease that resembled symptoms of syphilis is described (Persson, 2009). Moreover, they contain information about the treatment of the condition with the employment of calomel, cinnabar, and mercury. Similar methods of treatment were also found in ancient Chinese manuscripts dated 2600 BC (Persson, 2009). Hippocrates who is the founder of European medicine depicted accurately symptoms of syphilis in his works. Throughout history, people tried to overcome this severe disease. However, the problem became most acute in the XX century since at that time, it was one of the most terrible diseases. According to the statistics, 35% of the population in the United States had syphilis (Persson, 2009). In 1929, doctors treated the disease with bismuth and mercury. Nonetheless, only about 30% of patients were cured (Persson, 2009). Moreover, treatment continued for several months, and its side effects were toxic and frequently led to death. Therefore, the government of the United States decided to take measures to treat and control this disease and launched an experiment that was later called Untreated Syphilis in the Negro.
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The Essence of the Experiment
The American government began the experiment in 1928. It was conducted under the auspices of the state organization named the US Public Health Service. Participants of the experiment included 600 black residents from Tuskegee, Alabama. In fact, 399 of them had syphilis and the rest were healthy (Blumenthal, DiClemente, Braithwaite, & Smith, 2013). Participants were mainly poor farmers who could not even write and read. The initial purpose of the experiment was to find successful methods of treatment of syphilis among poor black people. It is possible to state that primarily, it was a noble goal. The intention of the experiment was to see if patients would feel better if they did not receive any treatment (Blumenthal et al., 2013). It was connected with the fact that, as noted above, treatment with mercury and bismuth had many dangerous side effects. Moreover, scientists wanted to study various stages of syphilis with the intention of finding methods to treat each of them. It was planned to follow the development of the disease for 6 months; however, if the patient had no visible improvements, he would be provided with treatment utilizing available means (Blumenthal et al., 2013). Doctors planned to monitor the development of syphilis for half a year. Importantly, after six months, they intended to treat patients with known methods if they had no visible improvements.
When the Great Depression started, the goal of the study changed. The American government stopped funding it, and researchers could not buy drugs necessary for the stage of treatment (Blumenthal et al., 2013). Despite this fact, doctors decided to extend the experiment. Results of the research in Oslo became a reason behind such decision (Blumenthal et al., 2013). In Oslo, doctors conducted the similar study. Its participants included several hundreds of white men with syphilis. During the experiment, researchers depicted symptoms of syphilis if it was not treated for several months. It is necessary to mention that the experiment in Oslo was retrospective, and it included people who were sick but did not know about their illness (Blumenthal et al., 2013). Similarly, Negroes from Tuskegee had syphilis and did not know about their disease. However, doctors knew about it and decided to repeat Oslos experiment on the black population. They wanted to compare the results, as at that time, it was believed that Negroes tolerated various damaging conditions genetically differently by various illnesses, including syphilis. The difference between the two experiments lied in the fact that the study in Tuskegee was perspective in contrast to the one in Oslo (Blumenthal et al., 2013). It meant that doctors would not continue to treat patients but would only observe them and describe their state.
The situation became even worse when in 1945, a medicine known as penicillin was invented to treat syphilis (Kaplan, 2016). At that time, it became the major remedy for syphilis. The government of the United States even launched a state program for the fast treatment of the disease. However, scientists that conducted the experiment decided to continue patients observations. They wanted to know how syphilis spread through the patients body and gradually killed it. In addition, patients still knew nothing about their disease, and they did not know even imagine what was the real purpose of the experiment. In fact, the treatment was only an illusion. Moreover, doctors conducted regularly painful spinal puncture on patients (Kaplan, 2016). Their purpose was to track the development of neurosyphilis that is the progression of the illness in the nervous system and brain. In such a way, patients experienced tremendous sufferings during the experiment.
It should be stated that except of participants, the study was not kept secret from the American government and other countries. International medical journals published the results of the experiment, and doctors from different states followed it with great interest. Nevertheless, there were those who believed that the study was unethical. Thus, one specialist in venereal illnesses was so alarmed about an unethical nature of the Tuskegee case that he even wrote several demands to the Department of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (Blumenthal et al., 2013). Despite this fact, the US Centers for Disease Control reaffirmed that the experiment had to be continued until all the participants died to conduct the autopsy of their bodies. Therefore, the cruelty of the experiment became apparent to everyone.
This terrible study continued for forty years and ended in 1972. Over this time, 28 participants died of syphilis, and other 100 perished as a result of severe complications caused by this disease. People that remained alive suffered the most diverse outcomes of syphilis, from lameness and the loss of sight to imbecility (Blumenthal et al., 2013). Moreover, 40 wives of the participants were also infected with syphilis. Shockingly, they did not receive treatment as well. During the experiment, 19 children were born, and all of them received congenital syphilis (Blumenthal et al., 2013). In such a way, all the participants as well as their wives and children were affected greatly by the experiment.
Consequences of the Experiment
A real scandal began when information about this case was revealed in the public press. Public protests started that forced the American government to create a special commission with the purpose of reconsidering the research (Blumenthal et al., 2013). The commission learnt that doctors concealed the truth advisedly from the participants about their illness, the true purpose of the experiment, and possibilities of treatment. It was disclosed that the real aim of the experiment was to study how people would die of the disease. No one of the participants received effective treatment, although it existed in the form of penicillin. The commission made a positive conclusion about the experiment in spite of the fact that all of its details were known to the government.
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In one year, people that participated in the study won $10 million in court from the government of the United States. The first case brought to court was called Pollard v. United States (Blumenthal et al., 2013). Despite the experiments cruelty, organizers did not receive any punishment. They stated that no ethical norms were violated during the research. Thus, this case was declared as the most prolonged non-therapeutic medical study in history. It was even comparable to the experiments performed on Jews by German fascists. After more than twenty years from the experiment, the American government apologized to the victims. In addition to the apologies, all the victims and their families received unlimited lifelong free treatment in the United States (Blumenthal et al., 2013). Moreover, the government issued the law, which fostered the establishment of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (Blumenthal et al., 2013). In such a way, despite all its cruelty, this experiment brought certain benefits, while the above-mentioned commission can prevent the conduct of similar case in the future.
A clinical study conducted in the city of Tuskegee, Alabama had the purpose of studying the course of syphilis. This experiment included 399 participants that were mostly illiterate African Americans. It is considered one of the cruelest medical studies. It is connected with the fact that in spite of the existing medicines, participants did not receive any treatment and doctors only observed their symptoms. The experiment became well known all over the world due to the absence of provisions of the experimental participants with appropriate conditions that led to changes in the policy relating to the subjects of scientific studies in the future.