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New Book Explores Lessons Learned From Tuskegee Syphilis Study


In her new book Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy (University of North Carolina Press, November 2009), Reverby details the study’s racist history, explains how people experienced it and why the doctors thought it was the right thing to do.WELLESLEY, Mass.— The Tuskegee Syphilis Study has become the American metaphor for medical racism, government malfeasance and physician arrogance. The subject of histories, films, rumors and political slogans, it received an official federal apology from President Bill Clinton in a White House ceremony attended by Wellesley College Professor Susan M. Reverby (right), one of those responsible for making the apology happen.

Reverby’s book overturns common myths and explores new lessons. Taking advantage of the recently opened medical records, hundreds of documents and scores of interviews, Reverby reexamines the notorious federally sponsored medical experiment that targeted hundreds of poor rural African-American men with late stage syphilis and ran unabated for decades.

Reverby, the Marion Butler McLean Professor in the History of Ideas and Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Wellesley, says the 40-year Tuskegee study has had a profound affect on the ethics and rules surrounding medical research and informed consent.

One of the fictions about the study involves the persistent belief that the Public Health Service doctors who ran it actually infected the men with syphilis. Not true, Reverby points out.

“Actually, they just watched and watched,” she said. “Yet the assumption that the men were injected with the disease continues to pass virally from one news source to another, from one person to another. It makes a better story and feeds our fears about experimentation.  It builds on an acknowledgment of racism and makes these men into perfect victims.  It links the Tuskegee story to other examples of moral failings in research.”

Even today, those opposed to the H1N1 vaccine argue that Tuskegee should be our warning not to accept government care.

“It is just the opposite,” Reverby contends. “The study should teach us about why the government needs to provide affordable care. If these men had decent heath care, they would never have agreed to be in what they thought was a ‘treatment’ program. It is reminder of the need for informed consent and vigilance, not rejection, of medical science and the necessity for government help.”

Reverby’s areas of expertise include race and women’s health and medicine.  She is an internationally known historian of American medicine, nursing and public health, former health policy analyst, and consumer representative on an FDA Advisory Panel.

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 75 countries.

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