In 1932, the United States Public Health Service launched an experiment in Macon County, Alabama, to observe untreated syphilis. They enlisted 600 black men, 399 of whom had syphilis, by concealing the experiment’s purpose and the infected men’s diagnosis. Farmer Herman Shaw lived in poverty and, like many others, joined the study for promised hot meals, free medical exams, and burial insurance.
Researchers told participants they were receiving treatment for “bad blood,” while administering only iron tonic and aspirin. For decades after penicillin was established as a cure for syphilis in 1947, researchers not only continued to experiment on the men but also barred them from treatment.
The experimentation ended in 1972 after a whistleblower exposed it. Attorney Fred Gray filed suit on behalf of the victims and won a multi-million dollar settlement. The money funded medical care for survivors and their families, but could not undo the harm: 128 participants died of syphilis or related complications, 40 wives were infected, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis. Many families also suffered under the stigma. “People think it’s the scourge of the earth to have [syphilis] in your family,” explained Albert Julkes, whose father was a victim of the experiment.
After the study was exposed, Congress passed the National Research Act to prevent human exploitation in research. The federal government did not issue a formal apology to participants and their families until 1997, and no one was prosecuted for the deaths and injuries the experiment caused. Today, an undisclosed portion of the settlement money remains in court-controlled accounts with an uncertain fate.