Eugenics and the Tuskegee Study
- A glance at the current issue of the Bulletin of the History of
Medicine: Eugenics and the Tuskegee study
In 1932 the United States Public Health Service began a study designed
as an observation of the natural history of latent syphilis. The
"Tuskegee study," as it is commonly known, lasted 40 years, during which
time researchers withheld treatment from 400 black men infected with the
disease. The case remains "the most infamous American example of
medical-research abuse," according to two professors, who argue that the
key physicians who started and directed the study had all received
medical training that embraced eugenic theory.
The authors -- Paul A. Lombardo, an associate professor at the
University of Virginia's Center for Biomedical Ethics, and Gregory M.
Dorr, an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama at
Tuscaloosa -- say "the intellectual background of the study's founders
provides a perspective that shows how their training contributed to the
most notorious chapter in U.S. medical research and public health
The physician who started the study and the two who presided over it
during its first decade all graduated from the University of Virginia,
which, according to the authors, "provided fertile ground for developing
what was apparently among the earliest medical course work incorporating
eugenic theory." Eugenic theory, they note, posits that "people of
different races inherited not only differences in appearance, moral
character, and sexual behavior, but also differential susceptibility to
The authors say that at Virginia, the three physicians were taught a
brand of racial medicine that had found scientific validation in
eugenics. Moreover, they say that during each of their tenures at the
Public Health Service, all three men actively associated themselves with
the American eugenics movement.
In conclusion, they write, "in the intellectual and professional
development of the men who initiated the Tuskegee study, the accepted
conclusions of racial medicine gave way to eugenic rationales that were
necessary antecedents to their 'objective' and 'scientific' study of
disease. As a result, the racial biases 'proven' by eugenics became the
foundation blocks upon which they constructed their study."
The article, "Eugenics, Medical Education, and the Public Health
Service: Another Perspective on the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment," is
available to subscribers or for purchase through Project Muse.
--Jason M. Breslow
Chronicle of Higher Education
A.J. Wright, M.L.S.
Director, Section on the History of Anesthesia
Department of Anesthesiology Library
University of Alabama at Birmingham
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