December 28, 2020 | Jerry Bergman

Scientists Apologize for Racism, cont: The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

The apology barely mentioned another incident that showed how
scientific racists mistreated blacks for 40 years. Here’s the scoop.


The Continuing Legacy of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study[1]

by  Jerry R. Bergman, PhD

In the October 29 issue of Nature, Alexandra Witze reported, “Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s six-figure donation is a step towards addressing racial injustice in the sciences”[2]. Her article brought to light the financial compensation for the experimental use of cells from Henrietta Lacks (see 21 Dec 2020), but also mentioned other examples of scientific racism. In Mrs Lacks’ case, she was treated differently than whites. For example, none   

of the biotechnology or other companies that profited from her cells passed any money back to her family. And, for decades after her death, doctors and scientists repeatedly failed to ask her family for consent as they revealed Lacks’s name publicly, gave her medical records to the media, and even published her cells’ genome online. … Now, the extraordinary events of 2020 — the #BlackLivesMatter movement for racial justice, and the unequal toll of COVID-19 on communities of colour — are compelling scientists to reckon with past injustices.[3]

To review, Henrietta Lacks was a “Black woman who was the source of the ‘HeLa’ cell line, which has been a mainstay of biological research for decades.”[4]  It was used in over 74,000 studies listed in Public Medical Abstracts alone.[5] It began in 1951, when

doctors took cancerous cells from Lacks without her consent, and later created the HeLa cell line, which today supports a multibillion-dollar biotechnology industry. Lacks died soon after, and for decades, her family saw no financial compensation and were not consulted on other medical decisions stemming from the use of the cells in research.

Glass eyes of a type used in the twentieth century for ‘racial’ classification. Credit: David Harrison.

Another Nature article headline proclaimed:  “FIGHTING RACISM DEMANDS MORE THAN JUST WORDS: Frustrated and exhausted by systemic bias in the science community, Black researchers call on their colleagues and institutions to take action.”[6] Scientists generally get favorable press coverage, but a look at history reveals that some of them have been among the worst racists by giving ‘race’ a scientific veneer that led to atrocities. The editorial says,

despite its lack of scientific rigor or reproducibility, this reliance on race as a biological concept persists in fields from genetics to medicine. The consequences of that reliance have ranged from justifications for school and housing segregation, to support for the Atlantic slave trade of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, genocidal policies against Indigenous communities around the world, and the Holocaust.[7]

Scientific racism still exists, as documented by Nathaniel Comfort. It creates cognitive dissonance in some, like famous evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky, “a brilliant population geneticist” who

was intellectually invested in the genetic concept of race, yet morally invested in anti-racism. “Dobzhansky’s paradox”, in Yudell’s phrase, was how to save biological race theory without sounding racist. He never did — and nor have we.[8]

The Darwin Connection

Racism has been endemic in science because Darwinism depends on the existence of genetic differences. Variations in a population, they believe, are the feedstock by which natural selection fuels evolutionary progress. Yet, in spite of this core belief that is central to evolutionary theory, scientists claim to oppose racism. This contradiction is the problem.[9] A number of trenchant editorials in science journals have expressed moral outrage at “systemic racism” since the Black Lives Matter movement, but few make the connection to Darwinism and the eugenics movement that ensued.

Deconstructing Scientific Racism

The scientist who did the most to destroy scientific racism was Franz Boas who disproved eugenic hereditarianism, the basis of Darwinian race science. He did this by his pioneering research in the field of

cultural anthropology, [a field] developed by Franz Boas and his students in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Boas coined the word culture in its modern sense, and became per­haps the greatest opponent of the biological concept of race. He and his students studied human societies through an entirely cultural definition of human difference. Boas found, for example, that cranial characteristics that had been claimed to be innately racial were the result of differences in nutrition and overall health. … Boasian anthropology scientifically proved that race is not genetic.[10]

History of the Infamous Tuskegee Study

Witze’s article about Henrietta Lacks also mentioned one of the most infamous exploitations of African Americans, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. She says,

Recent grants have included educational and medical expenses for members of the Lacks family, as well as support for the families of the Black men who, from 1932 to 1972, were part of a US government experiment to observe the effects of untreated syphilis. The men thought they were receiving free health care, but doctors gave them placebos and administered sham procedures instead.[11]

Nurse collecting blood for the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Newsweek—African and American Men Receiving “Special Free Treatment” from Physicians and Nurses. From Wiki Commons.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study was conducted by the United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The ostensible goal of this study was to observe the natural progression of untreated syphilis. All of the African-American men in the study were diagnosed with syphilis and were led to believe they were receiving health care from the federal government. The investigators obtained a sample of a total of 600 impoverished, African-American sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama.

A total of 399 men in the sample were diagnosed with latent syphilis, and a control group of 201 men who were not infected were also selected. Most of the men did not know they had syphilis because the signs and symptoms of primary and secondary syphilis are often mild, and thus not noticed or ignored. During the latent stage, no signs or symptoms of syphilis are normally evident.

Some of the incentives for male participation included the promise of free medical care. They were never informed of their diagnosis, but were told they had some undefined blood disorder the doctors called ‘Bad Blood’.[12]

They also were led to believe the program would last six months but it ended up lasting for 40 years. It was finally ended when the study goal was exposed and objections mounted. The infected men were not treated with penicillin during the study even though it was widely available in 1947 and had become the standard treatment for syphilis.[13]

Announcement of the termination of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study from The New York Times. From Wiki Commons.

Darwinian-Race Science Abuse

This study was one of the worst American examples of Darwinian-race science abuse.[14]  Darwinian racism was a central part of the motivation to do the study.[15] The scientists “discounted socioeconomic explanations of the state of Black health, arguing that better medical care could not alter the evolutionary” inferiority of the Black population.[16] Blacks were, as was widely believed for much of the last century, held to be evolutionarily inferior because they were less evolved than Whites. If that were true, though, improving their diet or social conditions would be a waste of time.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study was an attempt to prove this racist belief held by most contemporary scientists. In the end, it became clear that the progress of syphilis was not significantly different in Black men than in White men.

The last stage, the tertiary stage, transpires from 10 to 30 years after the syphilis infection occurred. This stage does not manifest for everyone infected, but can result in severe medical problems affecting the nervous system, the brain, the blood vessels, the heart, and other body organs. If untreated, its mortality rate is from 8% to 58%, depending on the health and nutritional level of the person. A greater death rate exists in infected males compared to infected females.

The study was unceremoniously terminated in 1972.

The Center for Disease Control ordering termination of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in 1972. From Wiki Commons.


It will never be known how many of the men infected with syphilis gave their sexual partners the disease, which probably contributed to the death of many of them as well. Likely, few of the men even knew they had syphilis even though the study researchers knew from the medical evaluations that they did.

This is yet another example of the enormous harm that Darwinism has done in American society. This case is better chronicled than most of the harms that Darwinism has caused us. I plan to continue to document in more detail other examples in the near future to add to the scores I have already researched and recorded.


[1] Corbie-Smith, G., The continuing legacy of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, American Journal of the Medical Sciences 317(1):5-8, 1999.

[2] Witze, A., Wealthy funder pays reparations for use of HeLa cells, Nature 587(7832):20-21, 20 October 2020.

[3] Nature Editorial. 2020. Henrietta Lacks: science must right a historical wrong. Nature. 585:7 September 3.

[4] Witze, 2020.

One of several books about the racist Tuskegee Syphilis Study. From

[5] Adey, Andrew, et al., The haplotype-resolved genome and epigenome of the aneuploid HeLa cancer cell, Nature 500:207–211, 2013.

[6] Wright, V.,FIGHTING RACISM DEMANDS MORE THAN JUST WORDS: Frustrated and exhausted by systemic bias in the science community, Black researchers call on their colleagues and institutions to take action, Nature 583:319-322, 9 July 2020.

[7] Nelson, R., Racism in science: the taint that lingers, Nature 570(7762):440-441, 25 June 2019.

[8] Comfort, N., Genetics: Under the skin. Nathaniel Comfort wonders at the enduring trend of misrepresenting race, Nature 513:306-307, 18 September 2014.

[9] Comfort, 2014.

[10] Comfort, 2014, p. 307.

[11] Witze, 2020.

[12] Jones, J., Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Free Press, New York, NY, 1993.

[13] Duff-Brown, B., “The shameful legacy of Tuskegee syphilis study still impacts African-American men today. “Stanford Health Policy, 6 January 2017.

[14] Gray, F.D., The Tuskegee Syphilis Study: An Insiders’ Account of the Shocking Medical Experiment Conducted by Government Doctors Against African American Men. NewSouth Books, Montgomery, AL, 1 March 2002.

[15] Frederickson, G.M., The Black Image in the White Mind, Harper and Row, New York, NY, pp. 228-255, 1971; Haller, J., Outcasts From Evolution, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Ill., pp. 40-68, 1971.

[16] Brandt, A., “Racism and research: The case of the Tuskegee Syphilis study,” The Hastings Center Report 8(6):21-29; Jones, 1993, p. 17; Reverby, S., Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 2013.

Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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