What are the boundaries of science when it comes to experiments and research? In the past years, we’ve seen several campaigns against animal cruelty in labs. Each time we see a picture or hear stories about the horrors animals endure, our hearts break and we can’t feel anything besides but rage and impotence. But what happens when human beings are treated the same way? We’ve all felt horrified by the sick experiments Josef Mengele conducted on human beings. Basically, Mengele was obsessed with creating a medicine to "enhance" the Aryan race, and each invention he came up with was tested on concentration camp prisoners. In the same way, he would select individuals with traits he considered interesting and would subdue them to all sorts of interventions to study their conditions.
More or less at the same time, but in the United States, a similar scientific study began. Together with the Public Health Service, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama started recruiting African American people to study the natural history of syphilis, a disease that had been killing millions for centuries. In their eagerness to understand the illness, hundreds were deprived of medication and were left to die.
What’s the difference between these two cases? None, actually. We still consider Mengele as the Angel of Death, the sick doctor without any respect for life, yet everyone involved in Alabama's massacre were never condemned for their acts. Yes, the case made the news and was controversial, but it has never had that load of judgment as Mengele’s cases. But, what actually happened?
This story started in 1932, when the Public Health Service starting offering free treatment and medical tests for black people. Many signed for the study that was supposed to last for six months, but actually was conducted for forty years. Of the 600 men that were tested, 399 were positive on syphilis. As some of these men assured, the only thing doctors told them was that they had bad blood and that they were going to start a treatment on that. "Bad blood" was a local term that was used for many different diseases and afflictions, syphilis being one of them.
Sounds fair so far, right? Well, what all these men weren’t told was that they were going to receive all sorts of placebos because the study actually wanted to see the development of the disease from the diagnose till death. This charade lasted for forty years where, naturally, many people died. But what these scientists never thought, or actually cared about, was that those with syphilis would spread the disease to their families.
These researchers working "in the name of science" were so cynical that they didn’t conclude their despicable experiment even after penicillin was accepted as the optimal treatment for syphilis. According to The Washington Post reporter DeNeen L. Brown, by 1945 the Public Health Service around the country started campaigns to treat men with syphilis, but since this department was working hand in hand with the Tuskegee Institute, they deprived the subjects of medication.
The horrors continued until a Medical Investigator, Peter Buxtun, heard of the case in 1968 and wrote a letter to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) expressing his opinions about the morals and ethics of this study. However, nothing really changed. Upset by the way he was ignored, he leaked all his investigation to the press, and in 1972 the horrors of the Tuskegee experiment were made public, and of course, the study ended immediately.
The families and survivors of the experiment started a trial in which, according to the CDC, “the U.S. government promised to give lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all living participants.” Quite an offer, right? The case brought a lot of controversies and paid special interest to the subjects' families, who didn’t know they had been spreading the disease, and in 1975, they were also included in the program where those with syphilis would be treated.
It’s not just a matter of morality and ethics, as Buxtun expressed, but another case of human massacre and abuse tainted with a racism that still remains all over the world. What's the origin of those superiority complexes that lets them think it's fine to control and destroy the lives of others?