Ethics in medical study is focus of latest One Book event

Students assembled for a lecture by biology professor Julie Oliver, called “Syphilis and the Tuskegee Study,” that covered the horrors of the infamous Tuskegee experiment, as part of the One Book project series in science room 308 at Cosumnes River College Feb. 25.

The Tuskegee experiment was a chapter of American history that began in 1932, and studied the prolonged effects of syphilis in 600 black men living in Tuskegee, Ala. Test subjects were encouraged to take part in the tests with medical exams, food and burial fees and had no idea that their syphilis was going entirely untreated. Despite the fact that penicillin was found to cure syphilis by 1947, these tests continued until 1972, when the Associated Press published an article condemning the Tuskegee experiments and sparking public outcry, according to the lecture.

“This started in 1932 and went all the way through to 1972, that’s 40 years,” Oliver said. “The study was sponsored by the U.S. government and U.S. tax dollars. Each member was given a $25 certificate of participation after 25 years. The surgeon general signed off on these things. They wanted to study the progress of ‘Untreated syphilis in the male Negro.’ That was the name of the study!”

The lecture highlighted the atrocities of the Tuskegee experiment. It also connected with the subject of this semester’s One Book Project, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, on the ethics of biomedicine and doctor to patient treatment, especially on the issue of informed consent.

Henrietta Lacks, a cervical cancer patient, had samples of her cancer cells removed and doctors later used them for cancer studies that have gone on to save thousands of lives. However, neither her nor her family, most of which were illiterate, had any medical knowledge, and as such never gave informed consent to the procedure, according to the book.

In comparison, the Tuskegee experiment consisted of patients who were misled about their treatment and could not give informed consent to the tests. It also resulted in the deaths of no less than 128 test subjects to syphilis with only minor advances to scientific research, according to the lecture.

One good thing that came as a result of atrocities like the Tuskegee experiment is that today we have much greater ethical standards in medicine and experimentation.

The ethical standards today are that tests must be just, must be in some way beneficial to the test subjects, must be well designed, must cover a large range and variety of test subjects and cannot violate laws, Oliver said. The Tuskegee experiment met none of these criteria.

Christina Vierra, a 24-year-old nursing major, found the lecture very informative.

“It just shows you how far we’ve come, and that seems pretty cool to me,” Vierra said. “It sucks that that had to happen to see the changes in generations and for everyone now to receive treatment and concern for such a disease.”

One Book events occur throughout the semester and all students are encouraged to attend.

“I would recommend it,” Vierra said. “Even if it’s not your major, it definitely is an eye opener to just grab into. I haven’t gotten to read that book yet, but it gives me that grab that now I want to see the information in it.”