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Eugenics and the Tuskegee Study

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  • Amos J Wright
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 23, 2006
      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.
      Associate Professor
      Director, Section on the History of Anesthesia

      Department of Anesthesiology Library
      University of Alabama at Birmingham
      619 19th Street South, JT965
      Birmingham AL 35249-6810

      (205) 975-0158
      (205) 975-5963 [fax]

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