We were medical guinea pigs, by Julianne Malveaux
1/7/2021, 6 p.m.
People who don’t know Black history have probably heard more about the Tuskegee syphilis “experiment” in the last month than they have in their whole lives.
The chattering class has used the debacle of allowing hundreds of Black men to live with untreated syphilis to monitor its effects to explain the many Black resistance that Americans have to accepting the COVID-19 vaccination, thus imperiling the possibility of “herd immunity.”
It wasn’t just the men, enticed into the study with the promise of lifetime health care, who suffered. Dozens of wives also were infected because they didn’t know their partners had syphilis. At least 19 children were born with syphilis because they were untreated.
There was no known treatment for syphilis when the study began in 1934 and was supposed to last just six months. Penicillin was the widely accepted remedy in the late 1940s, but none of the men in the study were offered it.
The study is referred to as the “Tuskegee experiment,” but it really needs to be called the U.S. Public Health Service experiment.
This was not the first time, though, and it is not likely to be the last when Black bodies are experimented on for white comfort. During enslavement, “doctors” often purchased enslaved people to experiment on them. After Reconstruction, when Black folks died from being overworked, often their relatives were not told of their demise, and nearby medical schools used their bodies to teach medical students about anatomy.
It was legal in 32 states to ster- ilize Black women — and others considered “marginal” — without their permission. In Alabama in 1973, the Reif sisters, ages 12 and 14, were involuntarily sterilized at a federally funded clinic. An Essence magazine writer broke the story with the help of a whistleblower.
Between 1929 and 1976, at least 7,000 people were sterilized in North Carolina by judicial order. Thousands more were sterilized by order of local judges. The state set aside $10 million in 2014 to pay some of the victims of the oppressive state policy, but many don’t qualify because they lack documentation. Those sterilized were treated as guinea pigs.
Dr. J. Marion Sims, known as the “father of gynecology,” perpetuated some of the more chilling experiments on Black women’s bodies. He performed sterilizations, unnecessary C- sections and more on Black women and worked on them until he could perfect the technique to use on white women.
Dr. Sims performed many of the painful operations without anesthesia. In other cases, Black women were given so much mind-numbing morphine that they became addicted. Dr. Sims is credited with inventing the specula, a tool routinely used in most gynecological exams. Actually, he used a spoon, then improved on it, for the examinations.
In her 2006 book, “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black American from Colonial Times To The Present,” Harriet A. Washington details the many ways Black bodies were guinea pigs for white experiments.
That’s not all. The Institute of Medicine has documented that Black folk with broken bones are less likely to get pain medication than white people. And the very recent death from COVID-19 of African-American physician Dr. Susan Moore, who was denied pain medication and was described as “intimidating” by the medical staff, illustrates how the medical establishment treats too many Black people.
Having said all that, I’ll still be standing in lines as soon as my number is called for the COVID-19 vaccination. I prefer the Pfizer vaccination from the research I’ve done, but I’ll take the Moderna if available. Why? I’m over 60, diabetic and thus at high risk for getting COVID-19. I want to travel again, get on a plane and see my Mama and my friends. I don’t know about eating out — my culinary skills have improved. But I know that my limited exposure to the world has gotten on my last nerve.
We were their guinea pigs, and the medical establishment has been negligent toward Black people. By now, though, enough white people have had the vaccination that by some wicked irony, they are my guinea pigs.
Get the vaccination if you can, medical racism notwithstanding. Black folks are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as white people. Protect yourself!
The writer is an economist and author.