Susan M. ReverbyMay 5, 2021
The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy
University of North Carolina Press 2013
Some books are new, others are newly relevant – and so worth looking at from a new, contemporary perspective. Such is the case with Susan Reverby’s book Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and its Legacy (UNC Press, 2013). When the book was published in 2009, our world was reeling from a global financial crisis that exposed how subprime mortgages disproportionately affected Black homeowners; today we reel from a global pandemic that has starkly exposed how Black Americans and other people of color are disproportionately affected by the virus SARS-CoV-2 and its effects. Another inequity connected to the pandemic relates to vaccine distribution and uptake: they are much lower among Black (and Latinx) than white Americans.
Examining Tuskegee is a deeply researched work that ranges from the trial’s origins within a public health partnership between the Tuskegee Institute and the Public Health Service, to portraits of its protagonists – the researchers, the men who were its subjects, the complex Nurse Rivers, and the persistent Peter Buxton, whose efforts eventually exposed the full truth of the study after it ran for 40 years – to the ways it was portrayed in popular culture and the media, to matters of bioethics and presidential apologies. In our conversation, Susan Reverby explains what actually happened in the study – no, the men were not injected by the researchers with syphilis – what it meant 50 years ago, and how it pertains, or not, to issues such as vaccine hesitancy among African Americans today.
Rachel Pagones is chair of the doctoral program in acupuncture and Chinese medicine at Pacific College of Health and Science in San Diego and a licensed acupuncturist. Her third book, an examination of the history of acupuncture as a means of social and political revolution, is under contract with the University of Michigan Press.