Examining the Tuskegee Syphilis Study: My First Experience Teaching Social Justice

Alex-Miller-Science-TeacherBy: Alexandra Miller

I knew I wanted to begin having conversations with my students that allowed them to see intersections between social justice and science, but I wasn’t sure how to begin. I’ve had conversations about ethics with students, but not ones who have extensive experience and background knowledge of social justice issues. To be honest, I was intimidated.

My first move–a bit of a misstep–I told them they’d be writing a paper.

“But, why?!”

At first, I thought, that’s the whole point! I want you all to be strong writers! I soldiered forward, telling them we would learn and discuss three scientific research studies that violated human rights–the first of which would be the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. No one was familiar with it, no one was any more interested in the thought of writing a paper.

We began by reading an article from the New York Times, which told us that the study, launched in 1932, involved, “412 poor black men” who were infected with syphilis by the U.S. Department of Health. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection. These men were infected without their knowledge, so researchers could study the effects of prolonged infection. And the men were intentionally deceived, told they were receiving free health care while being kept away from syphilis treatment and information. And the questions started spilling out:

“Why were these men chosen?”
“Why were they infected without their knowledge?”
“Why did they want to study syphilis?”

“But, why?”

We began by analyzing the two groups involved. We started with the men who were infected. Who were they? They were poor, rural (which we interpreted to mean uneducated), Black sharecroppers. Here the students’ background knowledge triggered sophisticated understanding–a student spoke up pointing out that sharecroppers were direct descendants of enslaved peoples, a historically oppressed group. And the scientists, who were they? Employed, so most likely middle class, educated, white, and representative of the federal government.

We were no closer to answering the most burning question: “But, why?”

I’m not sure but I think they expected a justifiable reason for why these men were chosen. Science strives for answers, right? For the greater good of increasing our wealth of knowledge, right? Shouldn’t it be objective enough to see beyond the social constructions of racism? Or at least be ethical enough to protect the people they involved in the study? But that doesn’t appear to be the case, because they didn’t administer penicillin to these men after it was discovered to cure the infection.

“But, why?”

As a teacher and as a person, I can’t answer this question. Together with my students we will continue to learn about how this happened and work toward understanding how to insure it doesn’t happen again.


5 thoughts on “Examining the Tuskegee Syphilis Study: My First Experience Teaching Social Justice

  1. Why??? The question that drives scientific inquiry. As I read I could not stop thinking about the Henrietta Lacks story. Her immortal curious to read the thesis statements that come out of this inquiry into science and social justice. I can’t help but think of the Henrietta Lacks story as I can support your learning objectives.

    • Yes, I’m familiar with that book and have taught it. It brings up a lot of questions about the ethics of science!

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I also taught the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment for years in my high school English and History courses. Most of my students had never heard about it, which didn’t seem right.

    A couple details here – the men in the Tuskegee experiment were not infected by the gov’t. They had previously contracted syphilis, and the gov’t went to extreme lengths to withhold treatment, even after the efficacy of treatments were widely known. It’s still horrific, and this does nothing to alter the appallingly racist attitudes that allowed this “study” to continue for 40+ years, but the details matter. More info is at http://www.nytimes.com/1997/05/12/us/families-emerge-as-silent-victims-of-tuskegee-syphilis-experiment.html

    However, the US gov’t *did* infect 700 Guatemalans with venereal diseases, including syphilis, between 1946-1948: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/02/health/research/02infect.html?_r=0

    • Yes, I see that there were about 400 who were found to have syphilis, not intentionally infected, and about 200 who did not, I was confused by language at one of my sources (Wikipedia…). Thank you, I’ll be sure to correct this in class!

      I also read several articles from the NY Times and I find it interesting to share and point out the language choices in this article in particular http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/03/us/medical-experiment-still-haunts-blacks.html. As a colleague, Dayo Harris, another contributor on this blog, read over my post, she pointed out the phrase “poor black sharecroppers.” She discussed how it had a pitying tone and used the term “black” uncapitalized. I’m considering preparing a lesson where the students examine the media’s portrayal of the study.

      Thanks again for reading!

  3. Pingback: Does Science Education Need A Civic Engagement Makeover? — Engaging Science | PBS

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