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Early Tuskegee study critic dies

No recap of the history of human research protections is complete without a mention of the Tuskegee study, which studied the course of untreated syphilis in black men who were not given access to available effective treatment for the disease. While the study, which began in 1932, went on under the radar of most observers for decades, one young physician noticed a 1964 publication about it. He found what he read so disturbing that he wrote a 3-sentence letter about it to the study’s senior author in 1965. His letter read:

I am utterly astounded by the fact that physicians allow patients with potentially fatal disease to remain untreated when effective therapy is available. I assume you feel that the information which is extracted from observation of this untreated group is worth their sacrifice. If this is the case, then I suggest the United States Public Health Service and those physicians associated with it in this study need to re-evaluate their moral judgments in this regard.

That letter’s author, Dr. Irwin Schatz, died April 1 at age 83, according to his New York Times obituary (from which the above letter was excerpted). The newspaper called Dr. Schatz a “rare critic” of the Tuskegee study. The obituary states that no one responded to Dr. Schatz’s letter, although it does note that “The letter was passed to a co-author, Dr. Anne R. Yobs of the Centers for Disease Control, who wrote in a memo to her bosses: ‘This is the first letter of this type we have received. I do not plan to answer this letter.’ ”

The abuses associated with the study were among the factors prompting the development of regulatory oversight of human subject research.

The link above will take you to the New York Times’ obituary. A separate article about Dr. Schatz’s thoughts on the study is available here. If you have trouble accessing either, please contact Edith Paal in the IRB office for assistance.