Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment
For nine days in August last year a group of Pueblo Indians ran from Taos, New Mexico, to the Hopi Cultural Center on Second Mesa in Arizona. Hardly a record-setting time for a distance of just over 375 miles, but then speed was not the point. In fact, this wasn’t even a race: the event commemorated the three-hundredth anniversary of the Pueblo Rebellion. In August 1680 runners bearing deerskin pictographs had sped over the same trails to coordinate the bloody and (for twelve years) successful uprising against the Spanish.
Nabokov followed their modern descendants in a pickup truck—later returning to Berkeley, as he candidly admits, to do some homework on the meaning of running in various Indian cultures, especially in the American Southwest. He draws judiciously on historical, ethnographic, and literary sources to write about everything from the Kickstick racing of the Western Pueblos to the ritual implications of running among the Papagos, Zunis, and Hopis, to the careers of several Indian Olympians. He is particularly good at rendering nuances: the ways that Indian running combines sport and spiritual discipline; how the Tricentennial Run was both a boost to Indian pride and a distinctly non-Indian mode of remembering the past; the subtle modulations of Pueblo hostility toward the white world. These qualities make for a vivid, accurate, and moving account of Pueblo life.
In 1972, a former federal investigator of venereal disease, now studying law, told an AP reporter what he knew about an obscure “Tuskegee Study”—and one of the most shameful medical experiments ever conducted in this country came to light: a forty-year study by the US Public Health Service of the effects of untreated syphilis on 399 black men in Alabama. When the story broke, Jones was a Kennedy Fellow in Bioethics at Harvard, and he has methodically investigated the serious questions that were not answered in the brief medical and public discussions following the story’s publication. Was the PHS interested in syphilis in blacks, or using blacks to study syphilis? Why was treatment withheld from those investigated, especially after penicillin became available? Why did the subjects cooperate? Why did an all-black institution, as the Tuskegee Institute was in 1932, help with the study? Was there ever any opposition to it? How did the doctors and one nurse who worked on the study view what they were doing?
The main characters in Jones’s account are those who planned, directed, and carried out the study, but he has much to say about the way the public health movement developed in the US. No one, Jones finds, ever strenuously questioned the morality of an experiment which withheld an established, effective treatment from the subjects. As a scientific study, the exercise was poorly designed. Some subjects dropped out and some were treated for other diseases—which may have affected their syphilis. The men who agreed to participate did so because 1) they were mostly illiterate and didn’t understand the terms, 2) they were poor and received free medical care for minor…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.
Copyright © 1981 Kirkus Reviews