A Historical View of U.S. Immigration Policy Return to Sociology Timeline

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

600 low-income African-American males, 400 infected with syphilis are monitored for 40 years. Even though a proven cure (penicillin) became available in the 1950s, the study continues until 1972 with participants denied treatment. Perhaps as many as 100 died of syphilis during the study (Allen, 1978).

The study continued for decades after effective treatment became available. In some cases, when subjects were diagnosed as having syphilis by other physicians researchers intervened to prevent treatment.

Throughout the forty years of the study it was periodically reivewed by U.S. Health Service officials. In each case the study was extended based on the argument that stopping the study, while helping these individuals, would interfere with the benefits to medical science of studying this untreated disease (Jones, 1989). For a justification of the study by one of the researchers, see the following movie. Cameo The study was stopped by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare only after its existence was leaked to the public and it became a political embarrassment.

This study violated a number of ethical principles that are now applied to human subjects research.

  • The study used disadvantaged, rural black men to study the untreated course of a disease that is by no means confined to that population. This places all of the burden of risk on that population when a much broader population benefits from the findings.
  • The study did not minimize risks to human subjects. In fact, it increased their risks. These subjects were deprived of demonstrably effective treatment in order not to interrupt the project, long after such treatment became generally available." (The Belmont Report, 1979)
  • The Tuskegee syphilis study is one of the most widely cited examples of research in which human subjects were not adequately protected. This study, and other similar studies provided the impetus for federal regulations that now restrict the treatment of human subjects in research.

    Copyright © 1995, Idea Works, Inc.(tm).
    Portions copyright © 1995, Board of Curators, University of Missouri.
    Idea Works and the program names mentioned above are all trademarks of Idea Works, Inc.

    This page is still in progress. Please send comments and requests for information to