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Peter Buxtun and the Tuskegee Experiment

For our next feature in the whistleblower series, we have Peter Buxtun. Buxtun is a man who grew up in the bay area of the United States – San Francisco. He was born in Prague in 1937. He was a Public Health service agent for the government of the country who blew the whistle on the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

About Buxtun

Peter Buxtun

Peter and his family arrived in the states as World War II immigrants from Czechoslovakia in the late 30’s. He graduated with a degree in history from the State University of Oregon and then served in the army.

Buxtun was hired by the Public Health Department in 1965 to receive details on sexually transmitted diseases through interviews with patients. Sooner than later, his attention fell on a particular experiment that was being conducted in Tuskegee, Alabama.

The Experiment

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment was formally known as the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male or the United States Public Health Services Study of Untreated Syphilis in Black Males. The experiment was being undertaken by Buxtun’s primary employer – the US Public Health Service.

The aim of this study was to observe the maturity of a disease called Syphilis in rural African-American men. There was also an attempt to understand the evolutionary history of the disease and to find out what the optimum dosage is, depending on the person and what is the best time frame to administer the treatment (which was mostly done through injecting the medicine).

The experiment started in 1932. It was being conducted in a college that historically saw its attendance from African American demographics – Tuskegee University. 622 underprivileged African Americans who were also sharecroppers were the subjects.

491 had contracted syphilis before the study and 169 had not. The way this experiment was conducted was that these men were given free medicine and medical aid, meals, and burial insurance in exchange for their participation.

Now, here is the catch. The study that began in 1932 was originally supposed to last for 6 months. The actual experiment went on for an unstipulated 40 years. The money allocated to fund the medical treatment of these men, as promised, ran out after the 6 months but the study continued without informing them of this.

There were members of the group who were never told that they had contracted the disease. What’s worse is that a cure of the disease was soon discovered by Alexander Fleming in the form of penicillin. He also enlightened others about the curing effects of penicillin for free, i.e., he did not patent it.

But to much historical dismay, the cure of penicillin was not administered amongst the subjects of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. The subjects were simply kept under the illusion that they were being treated for “bad blood”. A medically incoherent but popular slang used by the American community in those times to describe medical issues such as anemia and fatigue.

Why Was This Controversial

Now, it is a common knowledge in research, development, and academic circles that a certain level of information symmetry has to exist between the subject and the experimenter. Any evolution in findings, a change in methodology, a change in the agreement, or any sort of developments (foreseen or unforeseen) in the experiment that has not been discussed must be brought to light to the subject.

Further on, diagnosis, unfavorable or favorable results should be brought to the attention of the subject, especially if the direct repercussions fall on the subject himself. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment violated this understanding on every ethical level.

There wasn’t only a lack of consent but the disease led to the death of multiple men, 4 wives who contracted the disease, and 19 children who were born with congenital syphilis.

What Buxtun Did

When Buxtun, through his career at the Public Health Service, became aware of this, he immediately informed the director of the Division of Venereal Diseases of his concerns in the late ‘60’s.  Before him, another man going by the name of Irwin Schat also wrote and confronted the authorities about this practice but it went into oblivion.

By then, the main undertaker of the experiment, the Centre for Disease Control, particularly emphasized the need to conduct the experiment till its very end, i.e., until all the subjects had died and been autopsied.

Other professional medical branches such as the American Medical Association and the National Medical Association supported this pursuit of the CDC. No proper attention was being given to the gravity of the situation.

Buxtun finally, in the early‘70’s, took this matter to the press. The Washington Star splashed this story across its front pages in 1972. Soon, major publications like the New York Times caught on and the matter gained national attention. Soon, Senator Edward Kennedy called congressional hearings on this and declared the experiment as “outrageous and intolerable”.

The survivors and the women and children were finally administered penicillin. They also later ended up suing and settling for USD 10 million.


Herman Shaw- A Survivor

The Tuskegee experiment is often compared to the racial genocide and the absolute discrimination practiced by Nazi’s. And it is not outrageous to say that both events followed the same root – inherent racism.

“I felt what was being done was very close to … an institutional form of murder … it had become an accepted thing within the Public Health Service … not subject to review.”- Peter Buxtun.

The whistle-blowing that followed through Buxtun was one of the most courageous and milestone moments in breaking apart the United States’ racist history. Fighting against government entities, practices, and logic might be a thing we can afford to do today but it wasn’t so easy in the ‘70’s. Peter Buxtun stood for what was right and in his own way paved for more ethical medicine.

Image Credit: Creative Commons



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