Wednesday, February 4

The Results of the Tuskgee Study

After reading the Tuskgee Study I found myself asking one question; did the Tuskgee Study help scientists better understand syphilis? Obviously it showed several ways on how not to conduct scientific research, but did the study find any new information to help scientist treat/cure/prevent syphilis? I am still not sure what the goal of the Tuskgee Study was, or if there was a goal at all. It seems to me that whatever the goal was it was lost during the course of the study. Whatever you blame this failure on, (the Great Depression, lack of funding, poor management) the study became another chapter of embarrassing American racism. This brings up another question; did the people conducting the study realize that they were being racist? To say something is racist one has to make an ethical judgment on a situation. Like many scientist of the day a majority of the people conducting the Tuskgee Study believed that ethics were not a relevant part of science. John Heller, who was the director of the Venereal Diseases unit of the PHS from 1943 to 1948 said in a 1981 interview that, “The men's status did not warrant ethical debate. They were subjects, not patients; clinical material, not sick people.” This shows that many of the scientists during this time period did not believe that they were being bigots or racist, but does it grant them forgiveness? If anything was learned from this study, I hope it was that ethics should be a part of scientific research and should be used in every aspect of it.

(Also, if anyone can find anything about how the study helped the scientific community better understand syphilis please share it.)


1 comment:

  1. I don't think the study added anything new that were not available from other syphilis studies during that period. However, I think the study helps in providing a historical perspective to human experimentation for the future scientists.

    If we look back at the beginning, i.e., goal of the study, the study was extremely ambitious and their main goal was to study the natural progress of the disease (syphilis) "study in nature". And according to "study in nature" you just watch the disease progress without any intervention. To achieve that goal they had to document meticulously the progress of the disease from vital signs (temperature, pulse etc...) to examining the lesion (from origin to development of chancre and healing). However the study failed in every category (from what was mentioned in the article) neither were there health staffs (doctors/nurses) diligently documenting them in detail nor were these people consistent in follow-up of the patients and even if they came back for reviewing their predecessors maintained a very poor record so the cycle continued till the end of the study. Hence though there were 15 published articles for the 30yr experiment the results published would not have been credible.

    Also it must be noted that by the middle of the experiment, penicillin was already discovered and treatment was already available and by the time the study ended other forms of antibiotics was also developed (some people are sensitive to penicillin and can lead to death due to anaphylaxis). And unlike the view around syphilis when the study began during the 30's the knowledge around syphilis was gaining from other experiments (like pathogenecity, sensitivity to various medicine etc..) and hence people were able to develop preventive measures physically (condoms etc..) and also the lay person was becoming more educated about the disease. So by the time the study ended syphilis was no longer considered a taboo anymore. A simplified example of
    the transitional view on syphilis is how medical schools taught the disease. Medical students passing out during the pre60's era were given extreme emphasis on understanding syphilis "if you know syphilis, you know medicine" because of the extent of spread if left untreated.

    No doubt racism played a firm hand but I think it can be dangerous/oversimplification to just consider racism as the fall guy, just as people simply nazism as racism. For example, the study in its later period had colored researchers. Fritz Haber "father of chemical warfare" was a German Jew who developed poisonous gases for his country in WWI. I think this is where Rollin's description of ideology come in, if a group of people working for the same purpose (e.g.: soldiers in a battalion, people in a nation (proclaiming as for the good of the nation) and researchers in their particular field (for the good of humankind by knowledge) then these group of people forget the moral issues which is where I think ethics comes in to knock the door of these homes (groups) to remind them about the issues. I think that though morality is ingrained in humans by learning (from religion, society, culture etc...) humans are as easily able to disjoint it whenever they consider it to be interfering.


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