The art collage entitled Doctor-Patient shows a doctor and a nurse weighing and confirming the height of a male participant in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The upper left corner of the collage shows the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital on the campus of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), where the study was conducted. The faces of the doctor, nurse, and study participant are obscured to emphasize that their personal identity is not as significant as their participation in the study. No matter the role of the individual, each person involved in the study—doctor, nurse, participant—is in some way ignorant of the consequences of his or her actions.
During the study, which lasted from 1932 to 1972, doctors from the U.S. Public Health Service studied the progression of untreated syphilis in rural African American men who were misled to believe they were receiving free health care. Doctors involved in the study abused their role as medical experts to direct participants, updating records with their weight and physical condition and regularly testing their blood to check the syphilitic status of participants who were in the nonsyphilitic group. Yet, throughout the 40-year span of the study, the participants never provided informed consent nor received any explanation for why they had to endure painful tests, such as spinal taps done without anesthesia, which eventually caused physical harm and even death for some participants.
The doctors who conducted the Tuskegee Syphilis Study defended their deceptive actions as necessary for the greater good of society. For example, although penicillin was a known treatment for syphilis in the 1940s, doctors withheld this treatment because they wanted to observe the effects of nontreatment of syphilis in the African American male body. Their justification for nontreatment was based on a belief that if the nontreatment could be observed, then medical doctors could prove that the black male body reacted to a sexually transmitted disease differently than the white male body.
I was inspired to create this art collage because I was born in the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital. As a young child, I was aware of the study because my parents worked at Tuskegee Institute during the 1960s when the clinical trial was still being conducted. When I grew older, I wanted to learn more about the historical context of the study. The study’s African American male participants were intentionally deceived about their medical treatment and uninformed about the true intent of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Why did this happen, and how could it have continued for so long? As an artist and emerging bioethicist, I am driven to pursue these questions and more through my educational and research endeavors, and this pursuit has inspired and enriched my life both professionally and personally.
Acknowledgments: Original images provided by the Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama and the National Archives and Records Administration, Southeast Region, Morrow, Georgia.
Obiora N. Anekwe, EdD
Dr. Anekwe is a graduate student in bioethics, Columbia University, New York, New York; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.