We Were Guinea Pigs for the U.S.: It Isn’t Just Tuskegee

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By Julianne Malveaux

People who don’t know Black history have probably heard more about the Tuskegee syphilis “experiment” in the last month than they have in their whole lives.  The chattering class has used the debacle of allowing hundreds of Black men live with untreated syphilis to monitor its effects to explain the resistance that many Black Americans have to taking the COVID vaccination, thus imperiling the possibility of “herd” immunity.  

It wasn’t just the men, enticed into the study with the promise of lifetime health care, who suffered.  Dozens of wives were also infected because they didn’t know their partners had syphilis.  At least nineteen children were born with syphilis because they were untreated.  There was no known treatment for syphilis when the study, which was supposed to last just six months, began in 1934.  Penicillin was the widely accepted remedy in the late 1940s, but none of the men in the study were offered it.   The study is referred to as the “Tuskegee” experiment, but it really needs to be called the United States Public Health Service experiment.  Our government initiated and funded this abomination and used Tuskegee as its base for this putrid study.

This was not the first time, though, and it is not likely to be the last when Black bodies were experimented on for white comfort.  During enslavement, “doctor” often purchased enslaved people to experiment on them.  After Reconstruction, when Black folks died from being overworked, often their relatives were not told of their demise, but nearby medical schools used their bodies to teach medical students about anatomy.

 It was legal in 32 states to sterilize Black women (and others considered “marginal” without their permission.  In Alabama, in 1973, the Reif sisters, aged 12 and 14, were involuntarily sterilized in a federally funded clinic.  An Essence magazine writer broke the story with the help of a whistleblower.  The offending physician seemed to think the girls were mentally deficient and incapable of caring for the children they had not yet conceived.  That was their decision to make, not his.

Between 1929 and 1976, at least 7000 people were sterilized in North Carolina by judicial order.  Thousands more were sterilized by order of local judges.  The state set aside $10 million in 2014 to pay some of the oppressive state policy victims, but many don’t qualify because they lack documentation.  Those sterilized were treated as guinea pigs.

J. Marion Sims, known as the “father of gynecology,” perpetuated some of the more chilling experiments on Black women’s bodies.  He performed sterilizations, unnecessary C-sections, and more on Black women and worked on them until he could perfect the technique to use on white women.  Sims performed many of the painful operations without anesthesia.  In other cases, Black women were given so much mind-numbing morphine that they became addicted.  Sims is credited with inventing the specula, a tool routinely used in most gynecological exams.  Actually, he used a spoon, then improved on it, for the examinations.  Sims had quite the career, serving for a time as President of the American Medical Association.  There was a statue of him in New York’s Central Park and tributes to him all over the country.  Blessedly the Central Park statue was taken down in 2018, after several protests.  Why was it there in the first place?

In her book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black American from Colonial Times To The Present (Doubleday, 2006), Harriet Washington details the many ways Black bodies were guinea pigs for white experiments.  That’s not all.  The Institute of Medicine has documented that black folk with broken bones are less likely to get pain medication than whites.  And the very recent COVID death of African American physician Dr. Susan Moore, who was denied pain medication and was described as “intimidating” by the medical staff, illustrates how the medical establishment treats too many Black people.

Having said all that, I’ll still be standing in lines soon as my number is called for the COVID vaccination.  I prefer the Pfizer vaccination from the research I’ve done, but I’ll take the Moderna if available.  Why?  I’m over 60, diabetic, and thus at high risk for getting COVID.  I want to travel again, get on a plane, and see my mama and my friends.  I don’t know about eating out – my culinary skills have improved.  But I know that my limited exposure to the world has gotten on my last nerve.

We were their guinea pigs, and the medical establishment has been negligent toward Black people.  By now, though, enough white people have had the vaccination that by some wicked irony, they are my guinea pigs.  Get the vaccination if you can, medical racism notwithstanding.  Black folks are twice as likely to die from COVID as white people.  Protect yourself!

Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist and author.