While I concur wholeheartedly with James Fowler on his assessment of the Tuskegee experiment (Emory Report, March 3), I must strongly demur from his opinion of the television film, Miss Evers' Boys, which fictionalizes the experiment. I think the film so distorts the moral lessons of this tragic and criminal episode in America's recent history, that it would be better if it had not been made.
Why so harsh a judgment of a years-long, good-faith effort by well-intentioned producers and creative artists?
As I sat and watched the film, I found myself moved in the ways its makers must have intended. The story was artfully dramatized, the acting superb. But I felt a steadily growing unease and anger-not just at a government that allowed this horrendous experiment, but at the filmmakers. I struggled with my feelings-the biracial panel that followed the film's premiere at Emory was condemnatory toward the crime but adulatory toward the film. Who was I, a white male, to form a contrary opinion? But when the audience itself finally got to speak, it was apparent that my discomfort was not unique.
For me, as the drama unfolded, I found myself thinking about the Holocaust, my ultimate evil standard for crimes against humanity. Since my religious Jewish boyhood, I have delved almost obsessively into Nazi crimes against Jews. I never lightly invoke a comparison with them, and surely the Tuskegee "experiment" does not bear comparison with the Holocaust as a whole. But it does, perhaps, bear comparing with some of the nefarious "experiments" on human guinea pigs, mostly Jews, carried out in the name of science by Nazi "doctors" who had strayed so far from their commitment to medicine that they don't even seem to deserve the name.
Jews were studied as they starved or froze to death under the watchful eye of "science." In something like the same way, black men in the Tuskegee study were studied as they deteriorated with second and third stage syphilis. Although penicillin was found to be a cure for syphilis as early as 1942 and widely prescribed from that era onward, the men in the study were not given the drug until 1972, after many had deteriorated and some had died miserably and painfully.
So, doesn't the film tell the story? No. What it shows us is the moral struggle carried out in the hearts of two African Americans, a doctor and a nurse, the Miss Evers of the title. Their white colleague is on screen only occasionally. The real perpetrators of this horrendous crime, physicians and health officials on the government payroll, are shown for only a minute or so out of two hours.
Here then, was the source of my discomfort. I asked myself how I might feel if I had to sit through a two hour film about the Nazi human experiments in which the main characters were Jews who had been forced or duped into collaborating with the oppressors, while the real criminals were nowhere to be seen.
I would have been furious, not just at the Nazis, but at the filmmakers who had left them out of the story, choosing instead to focus on the moral struggle of unwilling or uninformed Jewish collaborators. There is a time and place to tell that story, and the community of Holocaust scholars has delved into it. But surely, first and foremost, we must see and hear the story of the real perpetrators of the evil.
This is just as true of the Tuskegee study as it is of the admittedly far greater Nazi crime. Just for the record, here are the names of the five successive directors of the Division of Venereal Diseases of the United States Public Health Service who had personal responsibility for overseeing the three decades of criminal experimentation on black men: Dr. John R. Heller (1943-48), Dr. Theodore J. Baumer (1948-52), Dr. James K. Shafer (1953-54), Dr. Clarence A. Smith (1954-57), and Dr. William J. Brown (1957-71).
Each of these men came into office, reviewed the study among the ongoing programs under his supervision and made a decision to continue withholding penicillin-a superbly effective treatment-from syphilitic black men year after year, decade after decade. Others directly responsible for reviewing the program and recommending that it continue include Dr. Sidney Olansky and Dr. Stanley H. Schuman. The bitter story is told by James H. Jones in Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.
All these men, and others involved, failed in their sworn duty under the Hippocratic oath. They failed in their duty as government officials, bound by their promise to protect the public health. And they failed as human beings in some of the same banal, unconscionable ways that Nazi doctors failed. And none of them has ever been punished; none ever even admitted wrongdoing.
Is it any wonder that to this day many African Americans refuse to participate in public health and medical research? That some believe that AIDS is a genocidal scientific plot against their community? The lingering pain and cynicism left behind by the Tuskegee crime will never be purged by a film such as Miss Evers' Boys, which fails to show the criminals and instead blames the victims.
Evidently there is a film in production based on Jones' Bad Blood, under the direction of Spike Lee. Look to that work for a believable treatment of this event, which was a tragedy to be sure, but also a crime-a crime with victims and perpetrators. The perpetrators were not faceless or nameless, as depicted in Miss Evers' Boys, which shifts blame to an African American nurse and doctor. The names of those who did this were all too recognizable, and their faces were unquestionably white.
Melvin Konner is Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and an associate professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine.
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