by Emily Butler, content coordinator
The tale of human subjects abuses committed during the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee—in which researchers intentionally withheld treatment from hundreds of black men from the 1930s until 1972—reverberates through the research ethics world as a sentinel reminder of why the vigilant protection of human subjects is so essential.
Today, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius issued a joint statement of apology for a scandal that is sadly reminiscent of the abuses that took place at Tuskegee. Between 1946 and 1948, a U.S. Public Health Service physician investigated syphilis and gonorrhea treatment by intentionally inoculating hundreds of Guatemalans with the diseases. These abuses, conducted as part of the U.S. Public Health Service Sexually Transmitted Disease Inoculation Study of 1946-1948, were unknown to the public until Susan M. Reverby, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College, uncovered the story through her research involving the syphilis study at Tuskegee.
Although historians have spent years trying to correct the misconception that black men were intentionally infected with syphilis at Tuskegee, today’s story serves as a reminder that this type of injustice did occur in some studies.
According to long-time PRIM&R Board member and Yale professor Robert Levine, “Tuskegee has become the leading metaphor for evil in the name of research involving human subjects. When we want to say this research looks as evil as we can get, we say this reminds us of Tuskegee.”
Today’s news story evokes the symbolic power of past studies that Dr. Levine suggests, and is the latest, real reminder of why the work of those in the IRB/HRPP community is so essential.
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