Tuskegee Experiment Was But One Medical Study That Exploited African-Americans Infamous Research

March 19, 1995|By HARRIET A. WASHINGTON

Troubling questions about surgeon general nominee Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr.'s knowledge of the "Tuskegee Study" have refocused public attention on one of the most infamous chapters in U.S. medical research.

Over 40 years, beginning in 1932, 400 Alabama men -- all poor and black -- were denied medical treatment while the U.S. Public Health Service documented the long-term effects of syphilis. The health service told the men their syphilis was being treated but gave them placebos.

During the 1960s, Dr. Foster served as professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Tuskegee Institute -- the focal point of the experiment. He also sat on a local medical board that was briefed about the research in 1969.

Last month, a conservative group attempting to block Dr. Foster's nomination accused him of having known details of the experiment some three years before its disclosure sparked public outrage.

But Dr. Foster steadfastly maintains that he did not learn about the experiment until 1972 and that he then immediately called for "appropriate treatment" for the subjects.

Beyond the questions of what Dr. Foster knew and when he knew it, the controversy underscores an ugly fact: In the name of medical science, blacks have been exploited in numbers that far exceed their proportion in the U.S. population.

"There are a lot of articles that say African-Americans have a distrust of the medical establishment because of the Tuskegee [syphilis experiment], but I think it's broader than that," says Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, a physician and medical historian who is also an associate professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin Medical Center.

"There's a long history of blacks and medical experimentation that predated Tuskegee.

"Tuskegee symbolizes the abuse, but I think that blacks who have never heard of Tuskegee fear experimentation."

No one was more misled than a group of parents in Baltimore about 25 years ago who thought they were enrolling their boys in a free Johns Hopkins child-care program.

More than 7,000 young boys -- "95 percent from underprivileged Negro families" -- were used as guinea pigs in a three-year experiment that could have branded them as latent criminals for life, according to a story that appeared in the now-defunct Washington Daily News.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the project extracted blood samples, ostensibly to test for anemia and other medical problems.

In reality, the blood was drawn to screen boys with an extra "Y" chromosome, making them XYY males instead of normal XY males. This was done because a theory, which remains unproved to this day, holds that males with the extra Y chromosome are more likely to become criminals later in life.

This genetic testing was done without the parents' knowledge or consent, according to the newspaper article.

Although men with XYY chromosomes tend to be taller than the norm, it has not been demonstrated to cause any type of psychological abnormality.

A similar experiment was conducted on another 6,000 young men, approximately 85 percent of whom were black, housed in (( Maryland state institutions for abandoned or delinquent children.

According to the Washington Daily News, the children's confidentiality was not protected and the blood-test results were passed to the courts to use as they saw fit.

Because blacks make up 44 percent of all prisoners -- almost four times their proportion in the general population -- prison experimental abuse is more likely to disproportionately affect African-Americans.

To more than 100 prisoners in Oregon, there was more than just a potential for abuse. In a sense, the inmates were victims of an age-old fascination -- some would even say obsession -- with black sexual prowess.

Between 1963 and 1971, radioactive thymidine, a genetic compound, was injected into the testicles of more than 100 prisoners at the Oregon State Penitentiary to see whether the rate of sperm production was affected by exposure to steroidal hormones.

A Dr. Heller (whose first name is not given in the medical literature) noted, "I have a negro [sic] volunteer at present."

What befell this "negro volunteer"?

"After a novocaine injection, a 1mm cut was made in each testicle. The seminiferous tubercules [which carry semen] were severed by the stroke of a razor blade. . . ."

Then, "radioactive thymidine [thymidine H3] was injected into the testicular matrix [testes]. The injection site was marked by a black silk suture."

In another prison case, inmates were used in flawed blood

plasma trials between 1967 and 1969 throughout Alabama.

The study was managed by Dr. Austin R. Stough at Kilby, Draper and McAlester prisons. According to a New York Times account, there was no informed consent and no accurate records were kept.

Dr. Stough was expelled several times from hospitals and prisons after men became sick and died from a variety of diseases stemming from his experiments.

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