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Eugenics, Medical Education, and the Public Health Service: Another Perspective on the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

The Public Health Service (PHS) Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Male Negro (1932–72) is the most infamous American example of medical research abuse. Commentary on the study has often focused on the reasons for its initiation and for its long duration. Racism, bureaucratic inertia, and the personal motivations of study personnel have been suggested as possible explanations. We develop another explanation by examining the educational and professional linkages shared by three key physicians who launched and directed the study. PHS surgeon general Hugh Cumming initiated Tuskegee, and assistant surgeons general Taliaferro Clark and Raymond A. Vonderlehr presided over the study during its first decade. All three had graduated from the medical school at the University of Virginia, a center of eugenics teaching, where students were trained to think about race as a key factor in both the etiology and the natural history of syphilis. Along with other senior officers in the PHS, they were publicly aligned with the eugenics movement. Tuskegee provided a vehicle for testing a eugenic hypothesis: that racial groups were differentially susceptible to infectious diseases.