Every once in a while, history churns up a genuine, bonafide conspiracy. We know this, because someone always finds out about it. Conspiracy Theorists seize on these moments to try to prove their case, but they forget about things like Senate Subcommittee Hearings, which most of the conspiracies have received these days. Yes, the fact of the Tuskegee Study was kept secret from its participants for decades, and no, the general public didn't know about it. But I can't help thinking that it would have been pretty easy to find out about, if you'd been looking. Certainly they got government appropriations every year, and anyone in the hospitals that received the list of those who couldn't get penicillin shots might have figured out that something was seriously wrong there.
For those still unaware, in 1932, a group of govermental physicians selected about 400 black men with syphilis and left them untreated. At the time, they were probably safer--treatments for syphilis at the time were pretty horrific, and they generally didn't work very well anyway. However, by 1947, there was penicillin, which actually works to treat the disease without the nasty side effects of, say, mercury rubs. (Really.) The study continued, however, with lists of its participants being circulated to area hospitals to prevent any of the participants from actually receiving care. The study had been intended to last forty years, and by Gods, it was going to last forty years, and nothing like a cure was going to get in the way. Of course, these were men with wives and children, and syphilis is a contagious disease--to the wives, obviously, and the children born with it--but hey, it's all for science, right?
The movie, which is based on a stage play, focuses on Eunice Evers, R.N. (Alfre Woodward), one of the supervisors of the study. She has spent her career helping members of the community, and she really does believe that the study will do her people some good. However, she becomes less and less sure of that, especially when the man she loves, Caleb Humphries (Laurence Fishburne), gets treatment and is even able to join the Army. She wonders why the others cannot receive the same shot and have the same result, but the doctors tell her they can't, and she believes them. After all, they're doctors. They wouldn't do anything to harm their patients, right?
There really was a Eunice Evers; more than that, I cannot say. It seems likely to me that she experienced doubts over the validity of the study, but I cannot fathom that anyone would not, especially watching the Tertiary Stage patients go mad and die. If, as the movie shows us, she really had come to know and befriend various of the patients, it seems certain that she really wanted the best for them. Everyone connected to the study had a reason to participate, and I think many of them thought it would actually do some good. Never mind that it's a disease that might theoretically get wiped out. There were still people who thought we needed to know how people die of it. There are people who will be able to be clinical about anything. On the one hand, we need them in order to get anything done. On the other, we need oversight in order to make sure that the thing needs to get done in the first place.
The participation of these men was initially bought for $50. It's depressing, really, that it was probably more money than most of them had seen at any one time in their lives. Oh, it's true that $50 was a lot more then than it is now, but still. To gamble for one's life for $50 in almost any time is a thing to be avoided, and it's horrifying that these men didn't even know that it was what they were doing.