Sunday, November 22, 2009

Susan M. Reverby's "Examining Tuskegee"

Susan M. Reverby is the McLean Professor in the History of Ideas and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. She is editor of Tuskegee's Truths: Rethinking the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. She writes on the history of American women, health care and race.

Reverby applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy, and reported the following:
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is one of the most powerful racialized events in American culture, standing with slavery and lynching as the symbol for the failure to treat African Americans as rights bearing citizens. In the study, begun by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1932 in and around Tuskegee, Alabama, doctors tracked, but did not treat, hundreds of black men with late stage syphilis. The doctors explained instead that the aspirins, tonics and vitamins, and even a diagnostic spinal tap, were treatments for the men’s “bad blood.” The study went on for forty years until a newspaper story in 1972 made public what had been known in the medical community for decades. Media coverage was followed by outrage over the deceit and intentional deaths of at least 16 of the men, a federal investigation, a Senate hearing, a lawsuit, new rules on informed consent and medical research, and then histories, documentaries, poems, plays and in 1997 a federal apology from President Bill Clinton.

In Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and its Legacy, I trace out how the study happened and why it did not stop despite questions raised over its ethics. I explain why differing individuals became involved and understood their roles in it. I trace how the study’s many stories became imbedded in American culture and the rumors, some true others not, that continue even decades later. The point of the book is to look at the complexity of what happened and why “Tuskegee” remains a potent political symbol.

Page 99 is about the testimony given to a federal investigating commission in 1973. It explains why the white doctors who ran the study thought in medical terms (late latent syphilis does not always harm individuals, the heavy metal drugs used to cure the disease might be worse than leaving it alone, penicillin when it became available would not help these men). The black doctors, who had worked on the study, now saw themselves as having been lied to and could not justify it in terms of debates how to treat the disease. To them, it was racism pure and simple.

This page captures the tensions of reading the study as only medical on the one hand and only racial on the other. I argue we must understanding how medical thinking is often racialized and that scientific fervor can be misread in the context of a racial inequality.
Learn more about the book and author at Susan M. Reverby's website.

--Marshal Zeringue