There is a reason why African-Americans do not like to go to their doctors or even to hospital. Many fear that they will be probed, prodded, and experimented upon without their consent, and return home sicker than when they left – or may not return home at all. It is because throughout their long history in the USA, African-Americans have been secretly used as guinea pigs for medical experimentation by various American governments. Leslie Goffe reports from Washington DC.
The fear that the us government and medical authorities had been engaged in what has been called a “dark history” of medical experimentation on African-Americans is supported by the release over the past several years of once-secret US government documents showing how, from slavery until today, African-Americans have been America’s favourite guinea pig.
During slavery days, when they were recognised in law as only three-fifths of a man, African-Americans were thrown into burning hot pits by white physicians seeking a cure for sunstroke and had boiling water poured on them by white doctors determined to develop a cure for typhoid and pneumonia.
Free to use and abuse African-Americans as they pleased, white surgeons cracked open and probed the brains of black children and operated on the genitals of enslaved black women, all without anaesthetics. One white physician even pressed hot pokers onto the legs and arms of enslaved African-Americans to discover “how deep black skin was.”
Reluctant to inflict such horrors on their fellow whites, white physicians and medical researchers found in enslaved African-Americans the perfect substitute. “It was said that blacks didn’t experience pain, that they were immune to diseases like malaria and heat sickness that made it impossible for whites to work in the field,” says Harriet Washington, an African-American, and author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.
Slavery, Washington writes, probably “couldn’t have persisted without the physicians who said blacks were inferior and made by the creator to be the workhorses of the white man.” The exploitation of African-Americans for medical research did not end with slavery. It continued long afterwards.
Ebb Cade’s horrific ordeal
In 1945, African-American Ebb Cade was secretly injected with plutonium, the substance used to make nuclear bombs. Cade, a 53-year-old truck driver, was taken to a hospital in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, after breaking several of his bones in a car accident. He became an unwitting guinea pig in a deadly government experiment, and did not realise the doctors caring for him were also employed by the US Atomic Energy Commission. The doctors had been ordered to find out what exposure to plutonium did to the human body.
Injured and helpless in a hospital bed, Ebb Cade was injected with 0.29 microcuries of plutonium-239, more than 40 times the amount a person might expect to be exposed to in an entire lifetime.
A researcher who worked at the hospital in the 1940s described it as “a whopping dose” years later. In their efforts to see the effects of plutonium, the researchers pulled out 15 of Cade’s teeth to measure plutonium levels in his system. They also collected chips of his bones for study. Held in the hospital for more than six months, Cade rightly suspected that it did not take this long for his broken bones to heal and that he was, in fact, being kept in hospital to be used as a guinea pig.
So, his broken limbs healed, Cade fled the hospital when doctors and nurses were not looking. But he could not escape what the secret nuclear experiments had done to him. Described by doctors when he arrived at the hospital in Oak Ridge as a “well developed and well nourished coloured male in good health”, Cade died a few years later of heart failure, aged 61.
Undaunted by what it had done to Cade in 1945, the US government targeted other African-Americans for experimentation in the 1950s. Early in that decade, the CIA and the US military released close to half a million mosquitoes infected with yellow fever and dengue fever into several black neighbourhoods in Florida.
The mosquitoes were dropped from planes in special paper bags designed to burst open when they hit the ground, sending the infected insects off to bite as many African-Americans as they could. The military wanted to find out whether the mosquitoes could prove to be an effective weapon of war that could be used to infect, incapacitate, and kill America’s enemies.
Dozens of African-Americans in the mostly black city of Avon Park, in South Florida, became ill and at least eight residents died from the invasion of the mosquitoes. “Nobody knew about what had gone on here for years,” said a long-time resident of Avon Park. “But in looking back, it explained why a bunch of healthy people got sick and died at the time of those experiments.”
Even in the prisons
Elsewhere in the USA in the 1950s, African-Americans were being experimented on in prisons. Inmates at a prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were used as guinea pigs to test toothpaste, skin cream, hair dye, and soap for several pharmaceutical companies. They were also used to test radioactive, toxic, and mind-altering drugs for the US military.
The head of the study, Dr Albert Kligman, told a newspaper in the 1960s how thrilled he was to have such a large, and captive group, to experiment on. “All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a field for the first time.”
There have been hundreds of horrific experiments conducted on African-Americans without their knowledge or consent. But what happened to 600 African-American men in Tuskegee, Alabama, in the American South, between 1932 and 1972 has been described as “arguably the most infamous biomedical research study in US history”.
What happened at Tuskegee was a secret US government study of the effects of syphilis on the human body. It made President Bill Clinton so angry and ashamed that, in 1997, he felt compelled to issue an official apology on behalf of the US government.
“What was done cannot be undone,” Clinton said in a speech in front of the handful of African-American survivors of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. “But 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 US government did was shameful, and I am sorry … To our African-American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist.”
There have been songs about what happened at Tuskegee – Tuskegee 626 by Gil Scott-Heron. There have been plays about what happened at Tuskegee – the award- winning Broadway play, Mrs Evers’ Boys.
The wicked study
In 1932, the US Public Health Service (PHS) launched a study to find out what untreated syphilis did to the human body and chose the town of Tuskegee, in Alabama, to conduct its experiments. It selected 600 poor, African-American sharecroppers living in the Tuskegee area as its guinea pigs. Four hundred of them had contracted syphilis before the study began, but they did not realise they had the disease. The other 200, used as a study control, were free of the disease. All were told they had “bad blood”, which many took to mean they had anemia or some other non-lethal malady.
As an enticement to participate in the study, which became known as “The Tuskegee Experiment”, the men were offered free medical care, and free meals on the days they were examined at the PHS clinic. They were also offered a free funeral. Poor and uneducated, the men gladly accepted, unaware they were guinea pigs in a study that would leave dozens of them dead and their wives and children infected with syphilis.
Shockingly, when penicillin, which cured syphilis, became widely available in the 1940s, the medical researchers elected not to inform the men and even prevented some who suspected they had the disease and wanted to sign up for a syphilis treatment programme, from doing so. “The men’s status did not warrant ethical debate,” Dr John Heller, a director of the syphilis experiment, is reported to have said when the Tuskegee Experiment became public. “They were subjects, not patients; clinical material, not sick people.”
Shocking as this is, perhaps the most shocking thing about what happened in Tuskegee is the role played by African-American health workers, like Eunice Rivers, who helped convince the 600 sharecroppers to participate in the experiments and helped keep them ignorant of what was going on for 40 years. “So far, we are keeping the known positive patients from getting treatment,” Nurse Rivers boasted to her bosses.
Other African-Americans, too, were complicit. The president of the black college, the Tuskegee Institute, allowed his institution to be used by the PHS to conduct its research. Several black physicians aided white researchers in their syphilis experiments.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study lasted 40 years, until the whistle was blown to the media in 1972 by Peter Buxton, a PHS employee. Before he went to the media, Buxton tried to have the PHS shut down the study, but he was told by the study’s directors that it would be continued until all the men had died, been autopsied, and the findings logged.
The New York Times headline of 26 July 1972 that broke the story 40 years ago was emphatic: “Syphilis Victims in US Study Went Untreated for 40 Years; Syphilis Victims Got No Therapy”, it said. In all, 28 of the men died of syphilis, and 100 died of complications related to the disease. There were other casualties, too. Of the men’s wives, 40 became ill and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis.
Africa, the current guinea pig
In the wake of the Tuskegee Experiment, the US Congress passed, in 1974, the National Research Act. The laws regulated experimentation on humans and ensured that anyone participating in an experiment be properly informed, beforehand. But despite new restrictions and regulations, experimental abuses continued.
In the 1990s, medical researchers gave a banned diet drug, fenfluramine, to dozens of African-American and Hispanic boys, aged 6 to 10, to see, bizarrely, whether or not the drug could help predict if the boys were likely to become criminals as adults. The boy’s families were given $125 for their children’s participation in the study.
Harriet Washington, the author of Medical Apartheid, worries that after years of progress, regulations governing medical experimentation are being diluted by pressure from drug companies and medical researchers. She is upset, for example, at recent changes allowing researchers to experiment, without consent, on anyone who seeks care in a hospital emergency room. “I’m very concerned about the erosion of informed consent in this country,” says Washington. “I say we have to stop this.”
Washington is also concerned about experimentation without consent in Africa, which she says has been a chief target in the past and will be a chief target of foreign researchers in the future. “A lot of the abuse on African-Americans has dissipated,” she says, “but that kind of research is being conducted in Africa. They don’t have rights. They don’t have access to medical care otherwise, and Africa is being treated as a laboratory for the West by Western researchers. It is troublesome.”