Syphilis Study apology event honors victims and families


TUSKEGEE, Ala. (April 5, 2013) — After years of hidden pain and stigma, descendants of the men in the United States Public Health Service Syphilis Study are glad to know they have not been forgotten. This week, the Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care honored the experiment’s victims and family while commemorating the 16th anniversary of former President Bill Clinton’s public apology for the infamous medical study. Known as the “Tuskegee Experiment,” from 1932-1972, more than 600 black men in Macon County, Alabama who participated in the study were denied adequate treatment for syphilis and their health as well as that of their families suffered for decades.

Dr. M. Jocelyn Elders

Tuskegee University President Gilbert L. Rochon
Teresa Chapman is the granddaughter of one of the “Tuskegee Experiment” victims. She joined several other descendants today in the ballroom of the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center for a luncheon to conclude the week of commemoration events. Chapman of Columbus, Ga., remembers the terrible pain her grandfather endured before he died and the impact his untreated syphilis had on her family. She said this was her first time attending the anniversary event and it helped her to know that the victims or their families will always be remembered. 

“I had a lot of anger built up inside of me being a part of this. It’s still embarrassing to tell people that you are even a part of this,” Chapman said. “Looking back on what my grandfather went through and what’s going on now, I can accept it more.” 

A long way to go

During welcome remarks, Gilbert L. Rochon, Tuskegee University president, praised the event’s focus on violence prevention and research ethics. He said the university will always have a vested interest in promoting medical and research practices.

“Our research engagement is significant,” Rochon said. “We are faced now with some very serious responsibilities as we move ahead.”

Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders, the 15th U.S. Surgeon General, delivered the keynote address at the commemoration luncheon. She acknowledged the sacrifices of the study’s victims and told the audience that those men will never be forgotten. She applauded President Clinton’s apology, but cautioned that much must be done to permanently change health care and medical research practices. 

“An apology is a starting line. But, repentance is turning and going in the opposite direction,” Elders said. 

She said education was integral part of preventing health disparities and unethical research practices. She said access to health care and education must be expanded by supporting health care reform and increasing the number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities that have medical schools. She also urged leaders and medical professionals to embrace what she called, “Determined Boldness.” 

“We have got to empower ourselves, our patients and our community,” she said. “We have to be successful, we cannot afford to fail.” 

After her address, Rueben Warren, director of the Bioethics Center presented Elders with the Sankofa Bird Award for Outstanding Leadership and Louis Maxwell, chairman of the Macon County Commission, was given an Excellence in Community Service award. 

“It has been a tradition to honor the keynote speaker, not for what they say. But, for what they have done with their lives on our behalf,” Warren said before presenting Elders with her honor.

The audience listens to keynote speaker, M. Jocelyn Elders.

From left: Dr. M. Jocelyn Elders, Ruben Warren, director of the Bioethics Center; and Louis Maxwell, chairman of the Macon County Commission.

© 2013 Tuskegee University

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