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Tuskegee Lessons
Syphilis Study Leaves Behind Legacy of Mistrust

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Dr. Vanessa Gamble
Dr. Vanessa Gamble (right), along with Tuskegee Study Legacy Committee members Patricia Clay and Anthony Winn.
Photo courtesy Joan Echtenkamp Klein

Tuskegee study member Herman Shaw
Herman Shaw was one of the few Tuskegee study participants able to attend a White House ceremony in 1997 and witness President Clinton's formal apology for the unethical study.
Photo courtesy Joan Echtenkamp Klein

"We were treated unhuman at all times. Nobody knows what we went through except those of us who are living participants right today."

Herman Shaw

Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, a physician and medical historian, chaired the presidential committee on the legacy of Tuskegee that secured an apology from the government. She writes this commentary to mark the 30th anniversary of the news reports that unmasked the study:

I was there when President Clinton said the words, "I am sorry." Tears streamed down the faces of many black people in the audience. I heard people sobbing. The pain inflicted by the syphilis study was not limited to the citizens in and around Tuskegee. For many African Americans, the fact that the Tuskegee study occurred at all proves their lives are not valued in America.

In the 30 years since the newspaper story broke, the syphilis study has become a powerful metaphor, symbolizing racism in medicine, misconduct in human research, the arrogance of physicians, and government abuse of black people. Efforts to improve the health status of African Americans have frequently come up against the legacy of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Many African Americans point to the syphilis study as a reason why they won't participate in clinical trials, donate organs, and more recently in the case of postal workers at the Brentwood post office in Washington, D.C., are wary of being vaccinated against anthrax.

There was a time that the word Tuskegee did not immediately bring to mind the syphilis study. It evoked images of Booker T. Washington, the educator and founder of Tuskegee Institute, of George Washington Carver, the scientist, or of the Tuskegee airmen, the World War II aviation heroes.

We cannot forget the inhumanity of the syphilis study, but we cannot let it be the only lens through which we examine the history of African Americans and medicine. Even in the face of oppression, African Americans have developed strategies and institutions to provide care, improve health, advance black health care professionals, and to battle racism in medicine. If you want a good example, you need look no further than Tuskegee Institute itself. In 1891 the school established a hospital, in 1918 it started a clinical society for black physicians and in 1922 it began the first post-graduate course for black nurses. All these institutions were necessities in a segregated medical world.

At the presidential apology, I spent time with Mr. Herman Shaw, one of the then eight survivors of the study. Of course we talked about the syphilis study.

"You know this was racist," he told me. "They only used colored people."

"You won't get any argument from me on that," I replied. But our conversation went beyond the syphilis study. We talked about his family, his schooling -- but most of all we talked about his love of farming. I told Mr. Shaw that I had a picture of him on his tractor. "You know that tractor is 56 years old and it is still running," he said. He went on to talk about how he could not wait to get home to get back on it. My conversation with Mr. Shaw reminded me that the men in the study should not be remembered solely as victims of a federally financed experiment, but as human beings with families, interests and lives. I made a promise to Mr. Shaw: "As long as I live, I will make sure that people won't forget you or what happened to you and the other men."

I am keeping my promise to Mr. Shaw. He died December 3, 1999, at the age of 97.

In Depth

• 1996 report by the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Legacy Committee on how the public could address the Tuskegee study and its impact.

• Background on the Tuskegee study, from the Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics.

Tributes to Herman Shaw, who died Dec. 3, 1999, and Fred Simmons, who died Feb 5, 2000.