JIM LEHRER: Now, to the Tuskegee apology story and Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: At a White House ceremony today President Clinton addressed survivors of an infamous study that has raised questions about race and medical ethics for decades.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: The United States Government did something that was wrong, deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens. We can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people what the United States Government did was shameful, and I am sorry. (Applause)
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: This apology was 65 years in coming. Now the U.S. government has officially said, "sorry" for its role in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. It started out with good intentions--medical doctors trying to find a way to curb the raging syphilis epidemic that was taking its highest toll on blacks in the South.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: Now that the curtain of secrecy has been removed, everyone should know the truth about syphilis and gonorrhea.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In 1930, the United States Health Service launched a study of the disease and the effects of treatment in six Southern counties with large black populations. But two years later at the height of the Depression, funding ran out.
Back in Washington, the Health Service decide if it couldn't afford to treat syphilis, maybe in a scaled back version of the experiment, they at least could study its effects. This decision produced the dramatic turn that led to today's apology. Abandoning those who participated in the larger treatment program, the Health Service chose to focus on poor and rural Macon County, Alabama, as the only site for a scaled down experiment.
In a report, Taliford Clark of the Health Service explained why. "Macon County," he wrote, "is a natural laboratory; a ready-made situation. The rather low intelligence of the Negro population, depressed economic conditions, and the common promiscuous sex relations not only contribute to the spread of syphilis but the prevailing indifference with regard to treatment." The famous Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington to educate freed slaves and their descendants, relied heavily on federal funding and quickly volunteered office space and its hospital for exams and autopsies.
In the fall of 1932, handbills were posted and circulated at several church gatherings in the poor county, where even the one black doctor served only those who could afford to pay. The ads promised "special treatment" for men with "bad blood," which, to local folks, could mean anything from VD to anemia to indigestion. Eager to take advantage of any kind of medical care that was free, men signed up in droves.
HERMAN SHAW, Tuskegee Study Subject: The way I heard about it was through a rumor that the people, that came out of Macon County, and people said you could get free medicine for yourself and things of that kind, and they would have a meeting at Salmon Chapel at a certain date. And those of us who were eligible, was of a certain age, why, then you had to be a certain age to be eligible to participate in this meeting, therefore I went.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: After blood tests of the volunteers, 399 men with syphilis and a control group of 201 men without the disease were chosen. But the 399 were not told they had syphilis, or that they were now part of a medical experiment.
CHARLES POLLARD, Tuskegee Study Subject: They say they gonna treat us--they just said bad blood.
HERMAN SHAW: We got three different types of medicine. A little round pill--sometime a capsule--sometime a little vial of medicine--everybody got the same thing.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The vial of medicine turned out to be nothing more than treatment for the symptoms of a common cold. For years, the doctors were relentless in their pursuit of the study. During World War II, they kept the still oblivious participants out of the draft, since military service would require a blood test and treatment if syphilis was discovered. In 1947, a miracle drug--penicillin--was found effective in curing syphilis, but the doctors also withheld it from the men in their study.
Though the study was organized and run from Washington, the participants dealt with a black nurse named Eunice Rivers. Rivers helped with transportation to the clinic, free meals, even burials. And when one man came to Birmingham to get a penicillin shot, she followed him there, making sure he didn't get it.
HERMAN SHAW: And they gave me breakfast and put me on the bus and sent me back to Tuskegee. You ain't supposed to be there--you're a Macon County patient.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The study, originally intended to run for six months, lasted 40 years. It was well known in the medical community--thirteen articles were published in medical journals throughout the course of the study. But the larger public and the participants didn't learn about it until 1972 when Peter Buxtun, a former Health Service employee, leaked the story to an Associated Press reporter. The AP story said the experiment involved "human beings, induced to serve as guinea pigs" and said that health officials involved had "serious doubts about the morality of the study."
Attorney Fred Gray has represented the participants since 1972, and in 1974, he won an out-of-court settlement totaling $10 million. Also in that year the government was ordered to provide lifetime health care for participants, as well as some of their family members. Still, the survivors and their families wanted one more thing--an official apology. Four of the eight survivors attended a press conference last month in Tuskegee.
HERMAN SHAW: We suffered through it, and we want to be recognized. And I think that we as people should be recognized.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Today, the men from Tuskegee got that recognition.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: The people who ran the study at Tuskegee diminished the stature of man by abandoning the most basic ethical precepts. They forget their pledge to heal and repair. They had the power to heal the survivors and all the others and they did not. Mr. Shaw, the others who are here, the family members who are with us in Tuskegee, only you have the power to forgive. Your presence here shows us that you have chosen a better path than your government did so long ago.