AP WAS THERE, Tuskegee Syphilis Study: Clinton apologized
WASHINGTON (AP) — EDITOR’S NOTE: On May 16, 1997, five elderly black men from Alabama arrived at the White House. Before an audience of dignitaries, then-President Bill Clinton formally apologized for decades of mistreatment the men endured as part of a research project known as the “Tuskegee Syphilis Study.”
The study was revealed in 1972 when The Associated Press reported that the U.S. government had conducted a study involving about 600 unknowing black men to continue for 40 years, even after penicillin was identified as a cure for syphilis. Clinton sought to close that ugly chapter with these words: “What the government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”
In observance of the 20th anniversary of that apology, The AP is making available its coverage of the White House ceremony, as well as the original 1972 story by AP reporter Jean Heller that exposed the study.
President Clinton apologized, but it was up to 94-year-old Herman Shaw to forgive his government for lying about the syphilis it allowed him to suffer for most of his adult life.
On Friday, Shaw did so, 65 years after he went to a church in his native Alabama believing he was getting free health care to treat his “bad blood” but unwittingly became a subject in a federal study of the effects of untreated syphilis on black men.
“In my opinion, it is never too late to work to restore faith and trust,” he said at a White House ceremony.
Shaw, joined by four other survivors of the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Study, received an official apology from the president, who uttered words they longed to hear.
“We can look at you in the eyes and finally say on behalf of the American people: What the government did was shameful and I am sorry,” Clinton said. “The American people are sorry for the loss, for the years of hurt. You did nothing wrong, but you were grievously wronged. I apologize and I am sorry that this apology has been so long in coming.”
Forgiveness came swiftly and easily from Shaw; Charlie Pollard, 91; Carter Howard, 93; Frederick Moss, whose age was not given; and Fred Simmons, who estimated his age at 110 and stood to applaud himself during his own standing ovation.
“We are delighted today to close this very tragic and painful chapter in our lives,” said Shaw, who will turn 95 on Sunday. “We were treated unfairly, to some extent like guinea pigs. We were all hard-working men, and not boys, and citizens of the United States.”
Other survivors and their families watched the ceremony from the Tuskegee University campus. The historically black college, then known as Tuskegee Institute, did not participate in the syphilis study.
Some cried. Others said their emotions were already spent.
“The tears came a long time ago for me, when we really needed medicine,” Josie Sanford of Tuskegee, niece of two study participants who died, said in the Alabama town.
Shaw’s granddaughter, Nina Shaw, said even though the apology came late, it was still an emotional moment. “This helps to soothe a lot of souls here,” she said in Alabama. “There was a continuing amount of emotional trauma.”
The apology was sought by the National Medical Association, an organization of 20,000 black doctors, in part because it had never been offered and also to erase the mistrust the study fed among blacks. Many blacks use it as a reason to avoid clinical trials for diseases that disproportionately afflict them, such as high blood pressure, kidney disease and cancer.
Clinton asked the men and their families to forgive the federal government for the grim research officially known as the U.S. Public Health Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.
“To our African-American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist,” the president said. “That can never be allowed to happen again.”
Researchers in 1932 lured 399 black subjects in Macon County, Ala., with the promise of free health care - then withheld treatment for 40 years, carefully monitoring as the disease claimed its victims.
By 1972, 28 men had died of syphilis, 100 others were dead of related complications, at least 40 wives had been infected and 19 children had contracted the disease at birth.
Although the government did not admit wrongdoing in the past, it distributed about $10 million to more than 6,000 survivors and their family members after settling a 1973 class-action lawsuit.
Clinton pledged a $200,000 planning grant to allow Tuskegee University to pursue building a Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care. He also announced the creation of bioethics fellowships for minority students and extended the life of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission until 1999.
And he directed Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to draft a report within 180 days outlining ways to better involve all communities - but especially minority communities - in research and health care.