The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

I had constructed a scenario in my head whereby Monroe Bryant of Rockport, Texas, petty criminal and draft delinquent, had gone to Louisiana and acquired another man’s draft registration card. I based this scenario on the fact that in the same batch of FBI reports that I had received concerning my great uncle Monroe Bryant of Rockport, there was another report referencing a Monroe Bryant of St.  Charles Parish, Louisiana. This Monroe Bryant was born four years before Monroe Bryant of Rockport.

And stealing someone else’s draft card, which makes no sense at all, is just the sort of shenanigan that Monroe Bryant of Rockport would have done.

But as I checked into this to verify it, I found Monroe Bryant of Louisiana on the 1930 census. He was listed as a patient at US Veterans Hospital No. 91, in Tuskegee, Alabama. I also learned that this Monroe Bryant had died in December, 1938 ,  in  Tuskegee. [My great-uncle Monroe Bryant of Rockport, Texas, died in December, 1953, in Sacramento].

Tuskegee, Alabama, was the home of Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington.  Now known as Tuskegee University, the school was one of the first of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU).  Tuskegee the town and Tuskegee the educational institution,  during the 1930s and 1940s both  played significant roles in two history-making experiments: one grand, the other malicious. The grand experiment of course is one well known by many Americans these days. It was the training of black pilots for the Air Force, which had never been done before. The Tuskegee Airmen went on to distinguish themselves in World War II. Flying fighter escorts for bomber missions, they never lost a single bomber. But this Monroe Bryant,  just like the Monroe Bryant of Rockport, was not so distinguished as to be training at Moton Field.

The thought came chillingly to me that perhaps Monroe Bryant of Louisiana, a patient in a federal hospital, had been a victim of the other experiment in Tuskegee.

While their brethren were away fighting Nazis, a large number of African-American men were being subjected to Nazi-like medical experiments in Tuskegee.  With the complicity of other African-Americans and the institution founded by Booker T. Washington, black men were intentionally injected by government doctors with venereal disease and left without treatment for years. These experiments went on despite the fact that penicillin had come on the scene  as a treatment for syphilis as early as the mid-1930s. for decades after penicillin was shown to be an effective treatment for syphilis in the 1940s [updated 08/09/2012 7:00 PM PDT].

More than 600 black sharecroppers participated in experiments conducted by the US Public Health Service. Although the men received free medical care meals and free burial insurance, they were not treated for syphilis nor were they told they had syphilis. Instead they were told by authorities that they had “bad blood,” a term which included everything from syphilis to fatigue.

As a result of the study, numerous victims died; their wives contracted syphilis; and some of their children were born with congenital syphilitic conditions. The study continued for nearly 30 years after the war. It came to an end in 1972 when a whistleblower exposed the unethical practices.

A  director of the Public Health Service during the so-called “Experiment on the Effects of Untreated Syphilis on the Negro Male,” Dr. John Heller rationalized the study in a way eerily reminiscent of the Nazi justifications: “For the most part, doctors and civil servants simply did their jobs. Some worked for the glory of science.”1.  Heller later said, “The status of the men did not warrant ethical debate. They were subjects, not patients; clinical material, not sick people.” 2.

The exposure of the Tuskegee experiment led to the enactment of new laws governing human research subjects. But an article in the American Journal of  Public Health stated that the Tuskegee experiment significantly damaged the trust of African-Americans in US public health efforts.3   Other research supports this view.4

In 1997, the President of the United States formally apologized for the experiments. At the time there were just eight survivors left of the hundreds who had been part of the experience;  five of them attended the president’s White House apology ceremony. Today there are believed to be no survivors remaining.

As it happened, Monroe Bryant of Louisiana,Unknown Tuskegee Syphilis  Victim the man with the same name as my great uncle,  probably was not one of the Tuskegee guinea pigs. He died on December 29, 1938, according to his death certificate, of  “an epileptic fit.” While that cause of death would not rule out his having been a Tuskegee experiment victim, his name does not appear on the list of Tuskegee experiment subjects. But why he was hospitalized in Tuskegee and given the nature of this shameful episode in American history, we may never know for sure.

The National Archives has a list of the known study participants at this link.

Unknown Tuskegee VictimUnknown Tuskegee Victim

Unknown Tuskegee Victim

Unknown Tuskegee Victim

Unknown Tuskegee Victim

Unknown Tuskegee Victim

Unknown Tuskegee Victim

Unknown Tuskegee Victim

I was struck by how handsome and dignified these men appear.  They had been led to believe that they were getting free health care from the government.

Black Nurse

An African-American nurse, Eunice Rivers, encouraged black men to sign up for the program.

Blood Draw

Blood is drawn from one of the Syphilis Experiment participants.



The Nixon Administration’s order halting the program.



Robert R. Moton, shown here in 1916, was the second head of Tuskegee Institute, taking over from founder Booker T. Washington. During his tenure, Moton presided over the commencement of the school’s greatest triumph as well as its greatest shame.



Capt John R. Heller, shown in his Public Health Service uniform (year unknown). Heller headed the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the 1940s. His reputation apparently suffered no fallout from the unethical program, as he later became head of the National Cancer Institute and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He also served as Assistant Surgeon General.

Photo Credits:

Unknown Tuskegee Victims; Eunice Rivers; Blood Draw: (all U.S. Government photographs; photographers unknown.

National Archives, Southeast Regional Office,  Morrow, GA; Record Group 442: Records of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1921 – 2006

Memorandum Terminating Program:

National Archives,  Southeast Region, Morrow, GA; Record Group 442: Records of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1921 – 2006

Textual Records from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Public Health Service. Health Services and Mental Health Administration. Center for Disease Control. Venereal Disease Branch (1970 – 1973)

Robert Moton:

The World’s Work (periodical; Arthur W. Page, ed.), February 1916, p. 356 (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1916).

John R. Heller:

U.S. Government photograph by Roy Perry, Images from the History of Medicine, National Library of Medicine, National  Institutres of Health, available at

Show 4 footnotes

  1. New York Times, July 26, 1972, p.1
  2. New York Times,  July 26, 1972, p1.
  3. S B Thomas and S C Quinn.  The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 1932 to 1972: implications for HIV education and AIDS risk education programs in the black community. American Journal of Public Health November 1991: Vol. 81, No. 11, pp. 1498-1505, available at
  4. See, e.g., Katz, R.V., Kegeles, S.S., Kressin, N.R.,  Green, B.L., Wang, M.Q., James, S.A., Russell, S.L., Claudio, C., The Tuskegee Legacy Project: Willingness of Minorities to Participate in Biomedical Research Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, volume 17, Number 4, November 2006, pp. 698-715.

4 Responses to “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study”

  • Robyn says:

    I always enjoy your posts. My ggrandfather, Luther Holt, died at that same VA Hospital in 1939. He had served overseas in World War I, but sadly was judged “insane” and committed to that Hospital. He died of the strange cause, “General Paralysis of the Insane.” I have always wondered what caused his illness (perhaps his treatment in the military?) and what his REAL cause of death was. It took me years to discover he was buried n the National Cemetery at Mobile.

  • Jennifer says:

    Disturbing to read, but so important to keep in the light. Thanks, Craig.

  • Craig says:


    You are correct about penicillin. I’ll update the post to reflect the correction. Thanks.

  • Stephanie says:

    Very interesting post on one of the low points of American history. It’s hard to believe such a horrific experiment could have been considered, let alone carried out. Thanks for the reminder. However, your comment about penicillin is incorrect. The first dose administered in the U.S. was in 1942.

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