Families of syphilis study victims remember President Clinton apology


Surgeon General David Satcher, President Bill Clinton, and Vice President Al Gore pose with syphilis survivors following the national apology in 1997.

TUSKEGEE, Ala. (May 15, 2014) — From 1932 to 1972, almost 700 African-American men living in rural Macon County, Alabama were told by U.S. Public Service medical researchers and physicians that they had “bad blood.” However, the men, many who were husbands, fathers, grandfathers and outstanding citizens of their communities in Tuskegee and Macon County, did not know that the U.S. Public Health Service officially labeled the medical study, “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” Friday will mark the 17th anniversary of President Bill Clinton’s national apology for the unethical government study. 

“My father, Gary Mitchell, did not know he was a part of a syphilis study. In fact, he and my mother thought if he participated in the study, the whole family would be tested and treated for “bad blood”, said Mitchell’s daughter, Florine Mitchell Edwards. 

According to African-American residents of Macon County “bad blood” was a colloquial term for being sick before the 1960s. 

“We did not find out what really happened to our fathers and others until we were contacted in the 1980s and when President Clinton gave the national apology at the White House on May 16, 1997, ” Mitchell Edwards said. 

Mitchell Edwards and her mother, Fannie C. Mitchell, attended the national apology ceremony at the White House 17 years ago. 

“When we went to the White House, we had a chance to meet families from Alabama and other states who had been suffering worse than we were suffering. My father was in the control group. I have a picture hanging on my wall of me and my mother at the White House from May 16, 1997. And, I gave a copy to all of my siblings and children,” Mitchell Edwards said.

The National Bioethics Center in Research and Health Care at Tuskegee University was established in January 1999. The Bioethics Center was designed as a partial response to Clinton’s apology for the United States Public Health Service’s syphilis study. The negative legacy of this study has been cited as a continuing hindrance of African-Americans and others in taking advantage of medical care and scientific research. 

It is the aim of the Bioethics Center to transform the burden of this negative legacy. The National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care at Tuskegee University works with local, regional, national and international communities, to address ethical and human rights issues in science, technology and health, particularly as they impact people of color. The center learned that some wives might have contracted syphilis from the men in the study. Today, the center’s faculty and staff work with a local community initiative called Emotional Emancipation Circles because children and adults living in Tuskegee and Macon County continue to endure from the public health stigma.

“We are working with Mrs. Florine Mitchell Edwards and other descendants of the unethical syphilis study to help them with various optimal public health challenges they continue to experience and we intentionally work with the residents of Tuskegee and the rest of Macon County, Alabama who are suffering from health and other health care disparities similar to those experienced by the men in the syphilis study,” said Dr. Rueben Warren, director of the Bioethics Center. 

To view the 1997 Clinton apology, go to:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1A-YP24QwA

© 2014 Tuskegee University

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