Examining Tuskegee

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Susan M. Reverby. Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2009. Pp. xvi, 384 pp. Cloth $30.00

Summary

Contents:

Introduction: Race, Medical Uncertainty, and American Culture

Part I: Testimony

1. Historical Contingencies: Tuskegee Institute, the Public Health Service, and Syphilis

2. Planned, Plotted, and Official: The Study Begins

3. Almost Undone: The Study Continues

4. What Makes It Stop?

5. Testimony: The Public Story in the 1970s

Part II: Testifying

6. What Happened to the Men and Their Families?

7. Why and Wherefore: The Public Health Service Doctors

8. Triage and "Powerful Sympathizing": Eugene H. Dibble Jr.

9. The Best Care: Eunice Verdell Rivers Laurie

Part III: Traveling

10. Bioethics, History, and the Study as Gospel

11. The Court of Imagination

12. The Political Spectacle of Blame and Apology

Epilogue: The Difficulties of Treating Racism with "Tuskegee"


Commentary

Roger D. Connor, Spring , 2012

Susan Reverby in Examining Tuskegee negotiates the contentious syphilis research program (the “Study”) that affected hundreds of African American men over forty years from the early 1930s to the early 1970s by not giving clear diagnoses and withholding treatment. Her narrative demonstrates the scientific sloppiness of the study, both in scientific and ethical frames of reference. The Study was a racist construction at heart and it is the post-Study social construction of this discourse that most interests Reverby – “what happened in the study is about how varying kinds of assumptions about race can fill in the uncertainty that is central to medicine.”

The rise of narratives outside the scientific discourse of ethics, which painted the Study in malevolent terms (i.e. PHS intentionally infecting patients, etc.) represented identities constructed from racist traditions. However, Reverby sees the racialization of the Study having its most deleterious effect in that “the men were treated as a population, rather than as individuals.” Her argument also has the explicit intent of refuting “counter-narratives” centered on scientific methodology that have emerged to muddy the waters of the stark ethical failures of Study scientists. She sees them as “a way to separate out concerns about the ways science can create race and perpetuate racism.”

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