10 Cover-ups That Just Made Things Worse

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment
A man is tested for syphilis in Georgia in 1935. Interestingly, a 2008 study showed that the Tuskeegee Experiment didn't seem to have affected African-Americans' willingness to participate in biomedical research. © Arthur Rothstein/CORBIS

Of all of the breaches of medical ethics in history, it's hard to think of one more heinous than the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male," which was conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), working with the Tuskegee Institute, from 1932 to 1972. Researchers initially recruited 600 men, including 399 who tested positive for syphilis [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. This sexually transmitted bacterial disease can occur over decades and causes paralysis, blindness, dementia and damage to the brain, heart, bones and other organs and even death [source: CDC].

Researchers didn't tell the infected men that they had the disease or that the purpose of the study was to document how the disease destroyed their bodies. The men were only told they would receive free medical care for "bad blood," a vague term that didn't imply a specific medical condition. And even when penicillin, an effective treatment for syphilis, became available in 1947, the researchers didn't offer it to them [source: CDC]. Between 28 and 100 of the participants died from syphilis, but the death toll may have been higher, since they may have infected others unknowingly [source: Tuskegee Syphilis Legacy Committee].

In the mid-1960s, Pete Buxton, a government social worker came across internal government reports of the study, and protested to higher-ups that it was unethical. After several years of inaction, he handed over proof of the study's existence to a friend at the Associated Press. The resulting outcry forced PHS to shut down the study in 1972 [source: Beech].

But that wasn't the end of the repercussions. The following summer, the government settled a $10 million lawsuit brought by survivors and their families and provided them with lifetime medical care [source: CDC].