Tuskegee Syphilis Study de­scen­dants emerge, Part I

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By JAY REEVES [Editor’s note: This is Part I of a three part se­ries Part II and Part III will be pub­lished in con­sec­u­tive weeks]

TUSKEGEE, Ala. (AP) — Decades later, it's still hard to grasp what the fed­eral gov­ern­ment did to hun­dreds of black men in ru­ral Alabama — even if you're among their de­scen­dants, light­ing can­dles in their me­mory.

For 40 years start­ing in 1932, med­i­cal work­ers in the seg­re­gated South with­held treat­ment for un­sus­pect­ing men in­fected with a sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­ease sim­ply so doc­tors could track the rav­ages of the hor­rid ill­ness and dis­sect their bod­ies af­ter­ward.

Fi­nally ex­posed in 1972, the study ended and the men sued, re­sult­ing in a $9 mil­lion set­tle­ment. Twenty years ago this May, Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton apol­o­gized for the U.S. gov­ern­ment. It seemed to mark the end of this ugly episode, once and for all. Ex­cept it didn't. Rel­a­tives of the men still strug­gle with the stigma of be­ing linked to the ex­per­i­ment, com­monly known to­day as the "Tuskegee Syphilis Study." For years they have met pri­vately to share their pain and honor the vic­tims.

And, amaz­ingly, that clas­s­ac­tion law­suit filed by the men in 1973 has out­lived them all. The lit­i­ga­tion con­tin­ues to this day, with a fed­eral court cur­rently con­sid­er­ing a re­quest that will help de­ter­mine the study's fi­nal legacy.

A key, unan­swered ques­tion: What should be done with un­claimed set­tle­ment money that still sits in court-con­trolled ac­counts?

Lille Tyson Head wants you to know that her fa­ther, Freddie Lee Tyson, wasn't just a man in­fected with syphilis.

Once a share­crop­per in the fields of ru­ral eastern Alabama, Tyson be­came a car­pen­ter early in his mar­riage to John­nie Mae Neal Tyson. He helped build Mo­ton Field, where the famed "Tuskegee Air­men" learned to fly dur­ing World War II. He later worked as a fire­fighter there, his daugh­ter said. He also worked for the gov­ern­ment af­ter it es­tab­lished the Tuskegee Na­tional For­est in eastern Alabama. Around 1960, he moved the fam­ily out of the Jim Crow South to Con­necti­cut, where he worked in a fac­tory.

"He was a wise man, very gen­tle. He was a dis­ci­plined man. Ac­tive in the church, loved his fam­ily and his ex­tended fam­ily," said Head, of Wirtz, Virginia, one of the Tysons' eight chil­dren. "He was a good man. He had a sense of hu­mor, he was a good dancer."

Though he dis­played no symp­toms, Tyson also was born with con­gen­i­tal syphilis in­her­ited from his mother, Head said. And that is how he be­came a par­tic­i­pant in "The Tuskegee Study of Un­treated Syphilis in the Ne­gro Male."

Lo­cated about 40 miles east of the state cap­i­tal of Mont­gomery, Ma­con County is one of the poor­est places in a poor state. In the early 1900s, the ma­jor­ity black county was a hot­bed for syphilis, which af­fected about 35 per­cent of its res­i­dents of re­pro­duc­tive age.

In 1929, gov­ern­ment doc­tors work­ing in con­junc­tion with a phil­an­thropic fund be­gan treat­ing syphilis pa­tients in the county with bis­muth and mer­cury. Few peo­ple were cured, ac­cord­ing to a sum­mary from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion, and some died.

Three years later, the U.S. Pub­lic Health Ser­vice, work­ing with state and lo­cal health agen­cies, be­gan what was sup­posed to be a short­lived pro­gram in Tuskegee to record the pro­gres­sion of the ill­ness, which be­gins with a small sore and can progress to open wounds, blind­ness, deaf­ness, men­tal ill­ness and death.

Work­ers ini­tially re­cruited 600 black men into a health pro­gram with the prom­ise of free med­i­cal checks, free food, free trans­porta­tion and burial in­sur­ance in a county where many blacks had never even seen a doc­tor. The men were tested and sorted into groups — 399 with syphilis and an­other 201 who were not in­fected.

The dis­ease-free men were used as a con­trol group. Health work­ers told syphilitic fa­thers, grand­fa­thers, sons, broth­ers and un­cles only that they had "bad blood."

None of the men were asked to con­sent to take part in a med­i­cal study. They also weren't told that "bad blood" ac­tu­ally was a eu­phemism for syphilis. In­stead, doc­tors pur­posely hid the study's pur­pose from the men, sub­ject­ing them dur­ing the study's early months to painful spinal taps and blood tests.

Med­i­cal work­ers pe­ri­od­i­cally pro­vided men with pills and tonic that made them be­lieve they were be­ing treated, but they weren't. And doc­tors never pro­vided them with peni­cillin af­ter it be­came the stan­dard treat­ment for syphilis in the mid-1940s.

The gov­ern­ment pub­lished oc­ca­sional re­ports on the study, in­clud­ing find­ings which showed the men with syphilis were dy­ing at a faster rate than the un­in­fected. But it's doubt­ful any of the men — or their wives, girl­friends or other sex­ual part­ners — had any idea what had hap­pened un­til an As­so­ci­ated Press story was pub­lished na­tion­wide on July 26, 1972.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF YERLESKE-CAM­PUS.INFO

1950′ In this s photo re­leased by the Na­tional Ar­chives, a black man in­cluded in a syphilis study has blood drawn by a doc­tor in Tuskegee, Ala. For 40 years start­ing in 1932, med­i­cal work­ers in the seg­re­gated South with­held treat­ment for un­sus­pect­ing men in­fected with a sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­ease sim­ply so doc­tors could track the rav­ages of the hor­rid ill­ness and dis­sect their bod­ies af­ter­ward.

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