A harrowing look at Tuskegee study


Exhibition includes images of patients, EKGs, autopsy reports



Tony Hooker's disturbing exhibition Beyond Legacy: The Tuskegee Syphilis Study at the James E. Lewis Museum of Art on the campus of Morgan State University presents an artist's outraged response to the morally reprehensible medical experiments carried out by the federal government on rural African-American men in Alabama from the 1930s through the 1970s.

The ostensible purpose of the Tuskegee study, which continued over four decades, was to discover more effective treatments for a deadly venereal disease that was widespread among both blacks and whites during that period.

Government researchers of the U.S. Public Health Service enlisted more than 400 poor black men to participate in the study by promising to provide them with routine medical examinations and -- a not inconsiderable inducement at the time -- some form of burial insurance.

What the organizers of the study neglected to mention, however, was that the men in the study would not receive any treatment for their illness. In many cases, men who had been diagnosed with the disease were told simply that they had "bad blood" or some other unspecified disorder not clearly identified as life-threatening.

Internal documents later revealed that in fact the main purpose of the study was merely to see how long the black subjects would live if their illness were deliberately left untreated.

By the late 1940s, the antibiotic penicillin had been found to be effective in treating syphilis among whites, who were given the drug when it became available.

But it was never offered to the black subjects of the Tuskegee study, whom government officials callously allowed to die in order to reap what they termed "the greater good" of advancing medical knowledge.

Hooker's exhibition retells this shameful episode through vintage photographs and photomontages that juxtapose images of the former patients with the facility where the experiment was housed. It presents a harrowing array of autopsy reports, life-expectancy tables, EKG results, doctor's memos and other "official" data that document what has been called one of the greatest ethical breaches of trust between physicians and patients in American medical history.

The exhibition also includes video interviews with the medical personnel who supervised the experiments as well as news footage describing the project after its existence was made public in 1972 and President Bill Clinton's 1997 public apology to the survivors on behalf of the nation.

The show runs through Oct. 30. There will be a symposium Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. with Vanessa Northington Gamble, director of the Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics.

The Lewis Museum is in the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center on the campus of Morgan State University, 2201 Argonne Drive. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. Call 443-885-3030.

Maplike art

On a lighter note, Josh Dorman's whimsical map collages at Galerie Francoise take up the theme of globalization and the environment through motifs drawn from geography, aerial photography and text.

Dorman, a New York-based artist, creates intricate landscapes from old map fragments, drawn and painted imagery and borrowed official documents that seem to express the global interconnectedness made possible by instant communications and a worldwide awareness of environmental issues.

In many of his works, which are drawn, painted and pasted on canvas or wood panels, he employs aerial perspectives that playfully confuse flat, maplike designs with freely drawn renderings of structures such as buildings, bridges and boats that seem to press upward through the picture plane toward the viewer like images in a 3-D movie.

Dorman's surfaces are often densely worked, with passages that look like urban street grids miraculously morphing into the color-coded patterns of printed circuit boards, computer chips and other electronic gizmos. Though there are rarely recognizable human images in these abstract concoctions, the paintings and collages seem inescapably and delightfully redolent of a human presence.

The show runs through Oct. 18. The gallery is at 2360 W. Joppa Road, Green Spring Station in Lutherville. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Call 410-337-2787.

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