This Week’s episode of Black History Fun Fact Friday is the recommendation of Harriet Washington’s Groundbreaking book Medical Apartheid.
The deliberate infection of people with deadly or debilitating diseases, exposure of people to biological and chemical weapons, human radiation experiments, injection of people with toxic and radioactive chemicals, surgical experiments, interrogation and torture experiments, tests involving mind-altering substances, and a wide variety of others. Medical experiments on children, the sick, mentally disabled individuals, and most especially blacks, often under the guise of “medical treatment” go back for centuries.
One well-known case of experimentation on Blacks is The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, a clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African-American men in Alabama. Mrs. Evers Boys starring Alfred Woodard and Lawrence Fishburne is a movie modeled after this experiment. The men were told that they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government and for forty long years had to tackle the deadly side effects of a disease many of them didn’t know they had. The Public Health Service started working on this study in 1932 during the Great Depression, in collaboration with the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama. Investigators enrolled in the study a total of 600 impoverished sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama. Of these men, 399 had previously contracted syphilis before the study began, and about 201 did not have the disease. Because these men were poor and often had no access to free medical care, the enticing sound of free medical care, meals, and free burial insurance for participating in the study prompted many of the most reluctant to take part. None of the men infected was ever told he had the disease, nor was any treated for it with penicillin after this antibiotic became proven for treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the men were told they were being treated for “bad blood“, a local term for various illnesses that include syphilis, anemia, and fatigue.
The product of years of research, Medical Apartheid is an excellent book and source of study by Harriet A. Washington on the dark history of medical experimentation on blacks from the colonial times to the present. She speaks in depth about the history of such organizations as Planned Parenthood and The Negro Project, known previously as The American Birth Control League, to other frightening tools of extermination by way of experimentation on unwilling and unknown people. Throughout the 1840s, J. Marion Sims for example, often referred to as “the father of gynecology”, performed surgical experiments on enslaved African women, without anesthesia. The women—one of whom was operated on 30 times—regularly died from infections resulting from the experiments. In order to test one of his theories about the causes of trismus (locked jaw) in infants, Sims performed experiments where he used a shoemaker’s awl to move around the skull bones of the babies of enslaved women. He also addicted the women in his surgical experiments to morphine, only providing the drugs after surgery was already complete, in order to make them more compliant.
And that’s it for this week’s episode of Black History Fun Facts. Here’s Last Week’s Post in case you missed it: