What do Terre Haute Prisoners, Tuskeegee Sharecroppers, and Guatemalans Have in Common?

It started in Tuskegee, Alabama. The US Public Health Service (PHS) began a study on 600 black sharecroppers in which they were offered free medical treatment. Many of the men had never been to the doctor. Of the men, 399 already had latent syphilis and the control group of 201 men was syphilis free. They all were told they were being treated for “bad blood,” a name given for a variety of ailments at the time. While most of the men already had the disease, some of their spouses and unborn children had not yet contracted it and the government effectively gave it to them.

Part of the purpose of the study was to track the full progression of syphilis and the men were given only placebos or aspirin while the disease took its course, ravaging their bodies. By 1947, penicillin had been proven an effective treatment for syphilis but the men were not offered treatment, only watched as they went blind, insane, and many eventually died.

In the mid-1960s, PHS investigator Peter Buxton voiced his concerns that the study was unethical. A committee was formed to review the program but the Public Health Service elected to see the study through its completion until all the men were dead. Years later, Buxton leaked the story to a reporter who told Associated Press reporter Jean Heller who broke the news nationwide. The public outcry forced the study to shut down. At that time, 28 patients had died from syphilis, 100 more from related complications, 40 spouses had contracted the disease and 19 infants got syphilis at birth.

In 1973, Congress authorized a $10 million settlement for the remaining participants and heirs. New laws were established as to what could happen in US Government-funded research. Many people are generally aware of the Tuskegee Experiments but far fewer know of two other government-backed studies on captive populations, involving some of the same doctors who should have known better.

In 1943, at the Federal Correctional Institute in Terre Haute, Indiana, the government injected 241 men with gonorrhea so that treatments could be studied as to their effectiveness. The men were offered $100, a certificate of merit, and a letter in their file for their parole board hearings. After several months, the study was concluded in 1944 because injecting men in their penises proved an unreliable method of passing along the disease. There is no information available as to the racial make-up of the Indiana subjects as opposed to the black ones in Tuskegee and the brown ones in Guatemala. One can’t help but wonder?

In September 2011, a report titled, “ETHICALLY IMPOSSIBLE” STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948, was released. The following is from the preface:

On October 1, 2010, President Barack Obama telephoned President Álvaro Colom of Guatemala to extend an apology to the people of Guatemala for medical research supported by the United States and conducted in Guatemala between 1946 and 1948. Some of the research involved deliberate infection of people with sexually transmitted diseases (“STDs”)1 without their consent. Subjects were exposed to syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid, and included prisoners, soldiers from several parts of the army, patients in a state-run psychiatric hospital, and commercial sex workers. Serology experiments that did not involve intentional exposure to infection, which continued through 1953, also were performed in these groups, as well as with children from state-run schools, an orphanage, and several rural towns. President Obama expressed “deep regret” for the research and affirmed the U.S. government’s “unwavering commitment to ensure that all human medical studies conducted today meet exacting” standards for the protection of human subjects.

While the United States expressed “deep regret,” it later declared itself not liable for these tests conducted outside the United States. Guatemalans were not entitled to the $10 million the remaining participants and heirs of the Tuskegee Experiment got. They didn’t get the $100 the Terre Haute prisoners got. The United States of America said Guatemalans were entitled to nothing at all. Judge Reggie Walton said he was following Federal law but was deeply troubled by the study. He urged the government to provide assistance to the affected.

“This lawsuit is simply not the appropriate vehicle for remedying those wrongs.”

Lawyers representing the Guatemalans are now seeking redress against private companies involved and in January 2019, a Federal Court declared that the Rockefeller Foundation, the Johns Hopkins Hospital and related entities, and Bristol-Myers who they describe as, “the driving force” behind the study. Several of the doctors worked for Johns Hopkins and received support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Bristol-Myers provided drugs to the small percentage that received treatment. In response to the $1 billion lawsuit lawyers for Johns Hopkins said,

“Johns Hopkins expresses profound sympathy for individuals and families impacted by the deplorable 1940s syphilis study funded and conducted by the U.S. government in Guatemala. We respect the legal process, and we will continue to vigorously defend the lawsuit.”

A spokesman for the Rockefeller Foundation said the lawsuit has no merit and they had no role in the funding, management, or design of the study. Bristol-Myer had no comment at the time.

The US Military had an interest in finding a treatment for syphilis which had no cure when the Tuskegee Experiment began. They estimated that as many as 350,000 soldiers might contract syphilis while fighting overseas wars and at home. Someone in the government thought it was just fine to infect targeted populations of prisoners (race undetermined), poor black people, and brown people of Guatemala. The government was shamed into a settlement with the Tuskegee survivors. They had no concern for the Guatemalans they infected with most receiving no treatment. The trial against the private companies is in discovery and we don’t know what information will be revealed. Here’s hoping that $1 billion is the floor and not the ceiling for compensation.

The Time A Black Man Went To The Doctor And It Saved His Life

Photo: pininterest.com

Okay I’m one of them… a black man that doesn’t like going to the doctor. I think I came by it honest. When I grew up in Minneapolis, and like all the other black kids there, I went to Dr. William Brown, Jr. He shared a downtown office with his father, Dr. Brown, Sr. And the wait time was never less than three hours. Whether my continued objection to seeing doctors is merited or not is arguable, but I am in the category of those that don’t like going.

I should stipulate I have employer provided health insurance from a major provider. I get one free visit annually which I take advantage of, mostly because they won’t renew my high blood pressure medications without me seeing an actual doctor from time to time. It was a physician that discovered the initial blood pressure problem but that was during a physical required to play basketball so that doesn’t count as a voluntary visit.

I went to my doctor after returning from a long road trip, because I was experiencing shortness of breath when lying flat which was affecting my sleep and compounding into always being tired. Because it was January and I had my free visit to use, I went to the doctor. There was a crowded waiting room (isn’t that always the case) which was almost all women except for a couple men who were obviously with their wives who had dragged them there. One elderly woman commented to her friend, “Look at this waiting room, that’s why men are always dying, they never go to the hospital.”

After seeing the doctor, (the wait was only about a half-hour), he decided I might be suffering from sleep apnea and referred me to a sleep study, and for blood work (they always do that on the free visit so you have to come back for a paid visit to get the results). Before I got a chance to get the sleep study done, I noticed an unusual pain in my left pectoral muscle that all my intuition and Internet research couldn’t explain away and I was certain wasn’t sleep apnea. It so happened I talked to one of my brother’s in Ohio and I mentioned my symptoms and that I was going to the ER to get checked out. That was my way of speaking it into existence because the clock would only be ticking until we talked again and he asked how things went. I was now committed!

The next morning, I didn’t eat breakfast in case any tests required fasting, around 10am I gathered myself up and went to the hospital ER. I even packed a small bag of toiletries and extra clothes in case I ended up staying and wouldn’t have to send someone to gather up the things I already had with me. Walking into the ER waiting room was a reminder of Dr. Brown, Jr’s office but they (unlike Dr. Brown) had a triage process and I guess my symptoms (and possibly the fact I had insurance) got me moved up to the front of the line. Within a few minutes they put me into a wheelchair and rolled me into a nearby room.

I was first met by Aidan, who introduced himself saying, “Your wife called ahead and made sure you got a male nurse today.” After talking for a few minutes nonstop, he asked, “are you married?”


“So, you knew I was lying”

“It’s your lie, I was just letting you run with it.”

“How long have you been divorced?”

“About four years.”

“I’m newly single myself.”

Aidan then took the next ten minutes to tell me about his ex, how much happier he was without her, and that he missed her. Fortunately, we were interrupted by a doctor which temporarily brought his tale of woe to an end. I was ultimately given an IV drip, EKG’s, a CAT scan, Echocardiogram, and chest x-ray before someone finally said. “We’ve discovered blood clots in both of your lungs.” That got my attention.

During the day, as they’d long ago told me I’d be spending a few nights, I had texted my two local children who indicated they would come by. I told them I was fine and there was no need to rush but was unsurprised when my youngest daughter arrived an hour before she was supposed to get off work. Then to my dismay, she started talking to Aidan who proceeded to tell her most of the people with what I have are discovered after they drop dead. My son and his family arrived, his girls confiscated the remote control and turned to the Disney Channel. Aidan commented on how wonderful my son’s family looked noting, “I’m recently single.”

Eventually I was given a room, on a different floor and away from Aidan. I was given dinner eventually, my first meal of the day (although my daughter brought me some Chick-Fil-A despite my being a Pescatarian). I saw more doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals and was told I should only be staying two nights instead of three although there will be a lot of follow-up (more doctor visits). If I do the right thing, I can expect a full recovery and live a full and productive life. Maybe dance at Aidan’s next wedding.

The bottom line is, had I not gone to the doctor(s), the next medical incident might have well been death. No new complaints, no gradual worsening of symptoms… death. No matter the inconvenience, wait time, even cost, black men need to go to the doctor more often because there is no better investment than in your health. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for someone you love, just do it!

Share this with a man you know that might need the hint!

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