1887

Chapter 12 : The Great Pox, Syphilis

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Abstract:

It was the fall of 1932, and syphilis was rampant in small pockets of the American South. The U.S. Public Health Service began a study of the disease and enlisted 399 poor, black sharecroppers living in Macon County, Alabama, all with latent syphilis. Cooperation was obtained by offering financial incentives such as free burial service, on the condition that they agreed to an autopsy; the men were also given free physical exams, and a local county health nurse, Eunice Rivers, provided them with incidental medications such as “spring tonics” and aspirin whenever needed. The men (and their families) were not told they had syphilis; instead, they were told they had “bad blood,” and annually a government doctor would take their blood pressure, listen to their hearts, obtain a blood sample, and advise them on their diet so that they could be helped with their “bad blood.” These men were not told, however, that they would be deprived of treatment for their syphilis, and they were never provided with enough information to make anything like an informed decision. The men enrolled in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (as it was formally called) were denied access to treatment for syphilis even after penicillin came into use (in 1947). They were left to degenerate under the ravages of tertiary syphilis. By the time the study was made public, largely through James Jones’s book and the play , 28 men had died of syphilis, 100 others were dead of related complications, at least 40 wives had been infected, and 19 children had contracted the disease at birth (Fig. 12.1).

Citation: Sherman I. 2017. The Great Pox, Syphilis, p 304-320. In The Power of Plagues, Second Edition. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781683670018.ch12
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Figures

Image of Figure 12.1
Figure 12.1

African Americans enrolled in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Many would have joined the “Great Migration” to northern cities. Courtesy of Everett Historical, Shutterstock.com.

Citation: Sherman I. 2017. The Great Pox, Syphilis, p 304-320. In The Power of Plagues, Second Edition. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781683670018.ch12
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Image of Figure 12.2
Figure 12.2

Albrecht Durer’s 1496 illustration of the syphilitic man.

Citation: Sherman I. 2017. The Great Pox, Syphilis, p 304-320. In The Power of Plagues, Second Edition. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781683670018.ch12
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Image of Figure 12.3
Figure 12.3

A photomicrograph of the spirochete . Courtesy CDC Public Health Image Library (14969); Susan Lindsley, 1972.

Citation: Sherman I. 2017. The Great Pox, Syphilis, p 304-320. In The Power of Plagues, Second Edition. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781683670018.ch12
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Image of Figure 12.4
Figure 12.4

World War II posters warning of the perils of syphilis.

Citation: Sherman I. 2017. The Great Pox, Syphilis, p 304-320. In The Power of Plagues, Second Edition. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781683670018.ch12
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References

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