books, social justice

"Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment" by James H. Jones

Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, New and Expanded EditionAfter reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I was interested in other discussions of race and informed consent, so decided I wanted to learn more about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments. Usually, when I think of informed consent, my mind goes to Milgram’s Obedience Experiments or Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment. (One of my favorite classes at OU wasn’t even for credit for my MBA program; it was an undergrad social psychology class I took for fun.)

Bad Blood was an edifying and interesting chronicle of the experiments, if at times horrific. James Jones did an excellent job describing the racial and social prejudices of the historical context without excusing them. Like Milgram and Zimbardo, there is some attention to the role of institutions and authority figures in perpetuating atrocities. One of the more interesting chapters discussed the role of Nurse Rivers, an African-American woman who was the primary link between the men in the experiment and the “government doctors.” It is hard not to ask, How could she? Jones gives a convincing answer to the question, though he doesn’t excuse her complicity. Also interesting were the descriptions of public health “demonstration” projects preceding the Tuskegee experiment. The Great Depression curtailed funding of many health programs, leading to the void into which the Tuskegee experiment fell, but when the country needed healthy young men to fight overseas, the health of the populace, especially men, was again a priority…except for the men of “Nurse Rivers’ Burial Society” who were cruelly denied treatment for the sake of the study.

I would have liked more discussion of the men who were part of the experiment, though access may have prevented Jones from covering more of their personal stories. By the time he wrote the history, not surprisingly, many of the men had passed away. The 1993 edition I read included a follow up chapter that discussed the Tuskegee experiment in light of the AIDS epidemic. While the information is dated, I thought that chapter did a nice job explaining why so many African-Americans distrust the government and doctors.

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