Tuskegee Syphilis Study Symposium at the University of Virginia — February 23, 1994
Coming to Terms with Unethical Medical Research: Tuskegee Symposium Overview at the University of Virginia
An important starting point for the renewal of dialogue about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was the symposium, “Doing Bad in the Name of Good?: The Tuskegee Syphilis Study and its Legacy,” convened on Wednesday, February 23, 1994 at the University of Virginia Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. The five-hour symposium undertook to apply historical perspective on the Tuskegee Study to the current problems of cultural difference in perceptions of health care workers and the appropriate nexus of scientific research and human rights. Summaries of the talks are provided below.
Speakers and Film
James H. Jones, Ph.D., University of Houston
Dr. Jones is the author of Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (New York, Free Press, 1993). He provided an overview of the origins and progress of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study over four decades. The interest which greeted the symposium gave credence to the 1932 statement of one of the Study’s creators who predicted of the Study: “It will either cover us with mud or glory when completed.” (Jones, Bad Blood, 1993, 112)
Vanessa Northington Gamble, M.D., University of Wisconsin School of Medicine
Dr. Gamble spoke of the distrust many African Americans feel toward physicians, and the role the Study has played in perpetuating this problem. She stressed that this distrust is ingrained in African-American society and reinforced by oral tradition. A suspicion of the medical profession is found in urban and rural settings, in poor and affluent communities, and among highly educated as well as less-educated African Americans.
Film: Bad Blood
This English film, first shown on BBC and A&E, presents interviews with survivors of the Study, physicians responsible for its oversight, and contemporary white residents of Macon County, Alabama. The interviews are interspersed with archival photographs and footage of U.S. Public Health Service venereal disease campaigns and civil rights demonstrations.
Susan M. Reverby, Ph.D., Wellesley College
Dr. Reverby spoke about the varied interpretations of Nurse Eunice Rivers, an African-American nurse who served as a liaison between government officials and the Macon County men. Without her assistance, the Study would not have been successful. There have been numerous attempts to “write Nurse Rivers,”including several plays; each attempt at biography is affected by the view of the person doing the “writing.”
Patricia A. Sullivan, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Dr. Sullivan provided an overview of the political climate of the Deep South during the last two decades of the Study, which encompassed the years of the Civil Rights movement. She noted the irony that Macon County was both the site of the Study, which relied on compliance and docility, and a center of civil rights activism.
Paul A. Lombardo, J.D., Ph.D., University of Virginia Health System
Dr. Lombardo addressed some of the legal aspects of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, noting the parallels between it and experiments conducted on mentally deficient subjects and campaigns of forced sterilization.
John C. Fletcher, Ph.D., University of Virginia Health System
A former bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Fletcher addressed the institutional culture that permitted the creation and long-term pursuit of the Tuskegee Study. Fletcher argued that these organizations encourage their workers to believe that they are exempt from the rules of society at large. He drew ethical parallels between the Study and the Nuremberg trials.
Gertrude Fraser, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Dr. Fraser provided an anthropological analysis of the Study and its participants. She suggested that in a rural, impoverished society such as Macon County, people would be aware of men receiving treatment, especially since this happened with regularity for decades. She also speculated that the men in the study and their families must have sensed, at some level, that they were colluding with unusual forces in their efforts to find relief from illness.
A question and answer session concluded the program.