Hippocrates is generally regarded as the
father of modern medicine. He wrote these words over one thousand
years ago: “Physician: thou shalt do no harm.”
These words formed the corner stone of the Hippocratic Oath, an
oath that medical school graduates are still sworn in by to this
day. Even though Hippocrates is revered in name and speech, his
legacy has been discarded in actual day to day practice. Today’s
mainstream medical doctors have strayed far from the path cleared
for them by Hippocrates.
The new rallying cry of medical doctors today seems to be “Profit
over patient care.” The medical profession today no longer attracts
those men and women interested in providing authentic health care.
Rather, the profession seems to attract the most materialistic,
greedy, and selfish elements of our society. No wonder that the
American health care system is ranked 37th in the world by the
World Health Organization (WHO) behind such countries as Costa
Rica, Canada, and Singapore. No wonder that medical doctors in the
US as a group constitute the third largest cause of death in this
country. No wonder hospitals across the nation are the most
dangerous places in the world for a sick person.
Medical doctors and their most nefarious institution, the hospital,
have become the enemies of health in America. Moreover, their
insistence on relying on prescription drugs and surgery as their
only two treatment modalities has limited their usefulness to an
extremely narrow range of ailments, and flys in direct
contradiction to the teachings of Hippocrats, who also said, “Let
food be your medicine.” The scientific method has been replaced by
dogma emanating from the pharmaceutical industry, which has a
behind the scenes stranglehold on mainstream MDs.
Doctors are just as susceptible to day to day politics, social
conditioning, and popular culture as the rest of us. Unfortunately,
this means they can lose their objectivity, and when that happens
their patients suffer. This was never more apparent than with the
modern day tragedy known as the Tuskegee Experiment, where the
physicians and scientists involved reflected perfectly the values
and attitudes of white men residing in the Deep South. Are you
familiar with the Tuskegee Experiment? Have you heard the story of
how good blood turned bad? If not, I will share a portion of that
story with you here today, but I must warn you: this is not a story
that goes down easy, either in the telling of it or in the hearing.
The Tuskegee Experiment was an experiment in genocide aimed at
African Americans by the United States government. The experiment
began in 1932 when the US government decided to continue its
practice of human experimentation by luring over 700 unsuspecting
blacks from Tuskegee, Alabama with the promise of free health care.
Out of the 700 plus recruited, 412 were injected with the
spirochete that causes syphilis and then studied like lab rats over
the next forty years – at least that is how I had always heard the
story. The book, Bad Blood, stops short of saying that the poor
black farmers were actually injected. Rather, it states that the
412 infected men were diagnosed with syphilis, meaning they already
had the disease when they were recruited. Anyway, over the next 40
years these men were left untreated and studied like guinea pigs.
They were denied treatment, and they were denied the cure when
penicillin became widely available in the forties. They were
allowed to infect their spouses and bring forth damaged children.
They were allowed to suffer, wither away, and die. They were the
victims of criminal cruelty, and although the names of the guilty
were well known they were never brought to justice. Fortunately,
the experiment ended in 1972 when a reporter broke the story to the
In the late 1980’s, PBS aired an interview with the last surviving
medical doctor of the Tuskegee Experiment. I happened to catch that
episode. I don’t remember the doctor’s name, but I do remember his
smug attitude. He felt no remorse for his participation in the
experiment, and he described the poor black farmers as ignorant and
simple minded. He said they were “like sheep.” He also denied that
racism played any role in the study. Despite the fact that all the
doctors were white and all the subjects were black, he felt obliged
to point out that a certain black nurse, Eunice Rivers, was
involved for over twenty years. And I guess this lady’s willingness
to sell her people down the river for a few crumbs of bread somehow
mitigates the crime committed by these doctors and scientists, and
is supposed to convince us that these so called health care
professionals were not card carrying members of the Klan.
This whole episode bothers me on so many different levels. It
bothers me that the men duped into this false study were never
viewed as patients, and really not even viewed as human beings.
Consider the following… A post mortem exam of an animal to
determine the cause of death is called a necropsy. The same type of
inquiry into the cause of death in human beings, as we all know, is
called an autopsy. Well, necropsy was consistently used as the term
of choice to describe the post-mortem exams of those that were lead
to their deaths in the Tuskegee Experiment. Most of all, it bothers
me that not a single doctor was ever prosecuted for malpractice;
not a single doctor was reprimanded; not a single doctor was ever
held accountable for his actions. I find that unconscionable.
When the study finally fell under public scrutiny in 1972, the
study was brought to an abrupt end, and a class action lawsuit was
filed on behalf of the 100 (+) survivors by a prominent civil
rights attorney, Fred Gray. This is the same attorney that defended
Rosa Parks in 1955 after she refused to relinquish her bus seat. He
also defended Martin Luther King, Jr in the Montgomery Bus Boycott
that followed Rosa Park’s action. Mr. Gray eventually won ten
million dollars as a settlement from the government. The survivors
received $37,000 each, and the attorney walked away with
$1,000,000. This is not a misprint; the attorney received one
million dollars from the settlement, many times more than any of
the victims. The funds were disbursed in 1975. By then many of the
survivors were blind, insane, or knocking at death’s door.
The book, Bad Blood, documents an important episode in American
History that is seldom discussed and never taught as part of any
public school curriculum that I know of. My biggest criticism of
the book is that the story does not really begin until page 91. The
first 90 pages are devoted to history, background, setting the
stage. Although I found this information interesting, I would have
edited the book differently. For some, the reading will remind you
of a three hour movie that should have told the story in two.
What scared me most about Bad Blood was understanding that the
mindset that made the Tuskegee Experiment possible still exists
today. You’re kidding yourself if you think otherwise.
Review Contributed by Kevin Thomas, author of Stonheart: The Bronx, due summer
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