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The fury among American blacks sparked by Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series was powerful enough to cause serious concern to the U.S. government, urban mayors, and major newspapers, and even prompted CIA Director John Deutch to make an extraordinary appearance at a town meeting in South Central Los Angeles, where Rep. Maxine Waters was accused of fanning the flames of “black paranoia”. We will now briefly outline why this “paranoia” is amply justified and why Webb’s series very reasonably struck a chord in the black community. In all discussions of “black paranoia” during the Webb affair, white commentators invariably conceded —as indeed they had to— that the one instance where such fears were entirely justified was the infamous Tuskegee experiments. Yet in the press coverage no more than a sentence or two was devoted to any account of what actually happened at Tuskegee.
The facts are terrible. In 1932, 600 poor black men from rural Macon County, Alabama, were recruited for a study by the United States Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute. The researchers found 400 out of the 600 infected with syphilis, and the 200 uninfected men were monitored as the control group. The other 400 men were told they were being treated for “bad blood” and were given a treatment the doctors called “pink medicine”, which was actually nothing more than aspirin and an iron supplement. No effective medical treatment was ever given to the Tuskegee victims because the researchers wanted to study the natural progress of venereal disease. When other physicians diagnosed syphilis in some of the men, the Public Health Service researchers intervened to prevent any treatment. When penicillin was developed as a cure for syphilis in 1943, it was not provided to the patients. Indeed, the development of a cure only seemed to spur on the Tuskegee researchers, who, in the words of historian James Jones, author of Bad Blood, saw Tuskegee as a “never-again-to-be-repeated opportunity”.
As an inducement to continue in the program over several decades the men were given hot meals, a certificate signed by the surgeon general, the promise of free medical care, and a $50 burial stipend. This stipend was far from altruistic because it allowed the Health Service researchers to perform their own autopsies on the men after they died. The experiments continued until 1972, and were canceled only after information about them had leaked to the press. Over the course of the experiments more than 100 of the men died of causes related to syphilis, but even after exposure, the lead researchers remained unapologetic. “For the most part, doctors and civil servants simply did their job”, said Dr. John Heller, who had headed the U.S. Public Health Services Division of Venereal Diseases. “Some merely followed orders, others worked for the glory of science”.
In 1996, President Clinton issued a public apology to the Tuskegee victims. Nor was this an entirely disinterested act of governmental contrition. Earlier in the year, Clinton had been approached by Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala regarding the scarcity of blacks willing to volunteer as research subjects. Shalala attributed this reluctance to “unnatural fears” arising from the Tuskegee experiments. George Annas, who runs the Law, Ethics and Medicine program at Boston University, notes that the apology was skewed and that Clinton and Shalala should have been finding ways of recruiting more blacks as medical students rather than research subjects. “If you were to look at the historical record, you will see that blacks’ distrust predated Tuskegee”, according to Dr. Vanessa Gamble, an associate professor of the history of medicine at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “There were experiments dating back to more than a hundred years that were more often done by whites on slaves and free blacks than on poor whites”.