According to the Wikipedia article:

During World War II, 256 of the infected subjects registered for the draft and were consequently diagnosed as having syphilis at military induction centers and ordered to obtain treatment for syphilis before they could be taken into the armed services. PHS researchers prevented these men from getting treatment, thus depriving them of chances for a cure.

How exactly were US Public Health Service (PHS) researches able to prevent participants from getting treatments? This claim is not sourced in Wiki but it’s repeated in many places (e.g. CNN), without a clear explanation of how this was done.


1 Answer 1


It was done by the researchers asking doctors and health officials nicely not to treat the research subjects, and there appears to be some controversy over exactly how many of the participants were, in fact, able to get treatment despite being enrolled in the study.

It seems that a primary method they used was to convince US Army medical screeners to declare study participants as suitable for service despite having syphilis and without requiring them to get treatment before being inducted.

According to the FINAL REPORT of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Ad Hoc Advisory Panel by the US Public Health Service on April 28, 1973 (published after the experiment had been whistleblown to the public) (pp. 9-10) (emphasis mine):

Reports regarding the withholding of treatment from patients in this study are varied and are still subject to controversy.... In written letters and in open interviews, the panel received reports that treatment was deliberately withheld on the one hand and on the other, we were told that individuals seeking treatment were not denied treatment (in transcript and correspondence documents).

What is clearly documentable (in a series of letters between Vonderlehr and Health officials in Tuskegee taking place between February 1941 and August 1942) is that known seropositive, untreated males under 45 years of age from the Tuskegee Study had been called for army duty and rejected on account of a positive blood. The local board was furnished with a list of 256 names of men under 45 years of age and asked that these men be excluded from the list of draftees needing treatment! According to the letters, the board agreed with this arrangement in order to make it possible to continue this study on an effective basis. It should be noted that some of these patients had already received notices from the Local Selective Service Board "to begin their antisyphilitic treatment immediately."....

Although the adequacy of treatment received is not known, it is clear that the treatment received was provided by physicians who were not a part of the study and who were individually sought by the individual patients related to their own medical symptoms and pursuit of treatment.

According to Baquet et al., Clinical Trials – The Art of Enrollment (published in final edited form as doi: 10.1016/j.soncn.2008.08.006 in Semin Oncol Nurs. 2008 Nov; 24(4): 262–269), in the Table II timeline for 1936,

Local physicians asked to assist and asked not to treat men. It was also decided to follow the men until death.

Thus, it appears that both the US Army and local doctors were "in" on the conspiracy. If you were on the list of participants enrolled in the study, your name was known to many of the doctors you might see who had already agreed not to offer you the current standard of care. If you somehow found a doctor who wasn't in, then you probably got treated.

As to why participants did not simply seek a physician who was not in on the arrangement, keep in mind that the entire experiment was clouded in secrecy. Participants simply didn't know that any doctors were in on the conspiracy, since they didn't even know there was a conspiracy. As to those who managed to find a doctor who wasn't in, then it does appear that they were able to get treatment.


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