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Image of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment venipuncture

In 1972, a whistleblower revealed that the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) had withheld syphilis treatment from hundreds of Black men as part of a 40-year study observing the natural course of the disease. The experiment’s subjects – the majority of whom were sharecroppers from rural Alabama – believed they were undergoing treatment for “bad blood”, a colloquial name then used for a host of conditions, including venereal diseases. Instead, they received placebos and inadequate medical care, even after penicillin emerged as an effective, readily available treatment for syphilis in the mid-1940s.

The Tuskegee syphilis study, as the experiment is often called today, began in 1932 with the recruitment of 600 Black men, 399 with syphilis and 201 without, to serve as the control group. Initially intended to run for six months, the study continued for decades. Unwitting participants lured in by the promise of free medical care, hot meals and burial insurance returned regularly for aspirin, tonics, blood draws and the occasional spinal tap. But none of these treatments do any good for syphilis, and 128 of...