TOPICS > Health

An Apology 65 Years Late

May 16, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For more on the Tuskegee study and its legacy we’re joined by Dr. Stephen Thomas, director of the Institute for Minority Health Research at Emory University, and Fred Gray, attorney for the Tuskegee participants and their heirs. Thank you, gentlemen, for joining. Mr. Gray, why was this apology today so important?

FRED GRAY, Tuskegee Victims’ Attorney: It was so important because the tragedy which occurred extended for over 40 years. The men had no knowledge whatsoever what was being involved. They thought they were being treated for what their ailments were, and when we settled the lawsuit in 1994, the government denied–there was never any admission, even though we did reach a settlement, and even though we’re giving treatment now.

So after some 65 years we felt that it is very important for our government, as powerful as it is and as influential as it is, and with all of the resources behind it, there had come a time when it simply needed to do what the President did today is make an outright confession and ask for forgiveness, and that’s what occurred.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Dr. Thomas, can you briefly explain to us in–not detailed clinical terms–but what happens? What is syphilis, and how does it progress, especially how is it detrimental to the body as it progresses?

DR. STEPHEN THOMAS, Emory University: Very briefly, it is a sexually transmitted disease that once the person is infected can result in damage to the liver, the heart, the lungs, the brain, can result in ulcerated skin, can result in dementia–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: A mental disorientation.

DR. STEPHEN THOMAS: A mental disorientation. It can be transmitted from the person–a woman, if she’s pregnant, it can be transmitted to her unborn child. It is a disease you don’t want to get.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And Mr. Gray, there were thousands of men who survived the experiment who were too ill to travel and others who have died. Are all of these effects due to the untreated syphilis?

FRED GRAY: Actually, there are eight living participants. Five of them were with us today. One of them was in the audience in Tuskegee. But what happens is the–the way syphilis operates, as I understand it, if you really have it in an active stage, it gives you all of those results that you’ve indicated, plus death. And those who were really affected died early. The human body has a tremendous capacity that if you can get over certain stages, if you can just make it, then you will able to survive.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Which is why you have a 100-year-old participant there today and Mr. Shaw, who looked very good for his age.

FRED GRAY: That’s why you have these persons who range–the youngest one is 87 and the oldest one is 110–and the 110-year-old walked to the airport like anybody else, without the aid of a chair.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Thomas, did these men have syphilis before they volunteered for the experiment, or did that–were they injected with syphilis by the government, as many people believe?

DR. STEPHEN THOMAS: I think you have hit the nail on the head. That is a critical question that was really not answered today, nor was it answered in the HBO movie,Miss Evers Boys. The common view in the black community is that the men were injected by the government doctors.

And that is why you see the kind of anger, and that has been repeated by Minister Louis Farrakhan and others that really are voicing a common folkmyth in the black community. But in my work and in working with the literature I have found absolutely no evidence that the men were intentionally injected by the government doctors. And maybe we can clear that up right now on this show.

FRED GRAY: Well, we made a thorough investigation of it, and we found no evidence–the men had syphilis–there’s no question about it. We found no evidence whatsoever that the government inflicted them with syphilis. The tragedy is bad enough, and we don’t need to make it any worse, but there is absolutely no credence to the fact that they were injected with syphilis.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Shaw said today–we just heard a little while ago that the damage done to society perhaps is deeper than the wounds that were inflicted on them. You’ve had some experience with that, haven’t you?

DR. STEPHEN THOMAS: Over the past seven years Dr. Sandra Quinn at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I have traced the roots of the Tuskegee legacy to the AIDS epidemic. Many African Americans believe that AIDS is a form of genocide, and their fear and suspicion of the health care delivery system is directly related to the history of the Tuskegee legacy.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: They believe that the syphilis was injected into the men, and now they believe that AIDS is something that has been put into the black community?

DR. STEPHEN THOMAS: Another example of efforts to eliminate black people. And it extends even beyond AIDS. African Americans are under-represented as organ donors, under-represented as individuals who donate blood, and this legacy in the black community is now a metaphor for all of the abuses of biomedical research that violate human rights. That’s why what happened today was so important.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But just to stay on the impact for a moment, does this retard your efforts to deal with AIDS and black people to treat them, or to do research, or–

DR. STEPHEN THOMAS: If we start talking after today it very well could retard. But what I heard today from the President and from the men was this is a new beginning, and if we find a way to talk about the role of race and medicine and science and continue this dialogue, we can have a new beginning and start rebuilding that trust.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But up to now the mistrust is there.

DR. STEPHEN THOMAS: It is there and well documented.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Gray, the damage to the families, is that a significant part of this legacy?

FRED GRAY: I think that is part of it, and one of the first things the Health Service did when the study ended was to have those families who–the participants who were syphilitic to be examined and those who tested positively were placed in the health care program. But let me hasten and say I think it would be a disservice to these men if we end up saying that AIDS is a direct result of the Tuskegee syphilis study. I don’t think that’s true.

I don’t think there’s any basis for those facts. I think AIDS is bad, and I think there’s room for people to have the distrust, but I don’t think we really should connect the two, and I think a part of our responsibility is to keep the record straight and let our people know it’s bad, but we need to do something about it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Dr. Thomas, could this happen again in this day?

DR. STEPHEN THOMAS: Some people believe that it already has. And the connection has less to do with the biology of the two diseases and more to do with people’s response to it, and that response is that today we know how to stop the spread of AIDS. Today we have new drugs that extend life, and African Americans are not benefitting. And the legacy of Tuskegee may be one of those factors.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, it looks like the chapter is not quite closed.