Pollard Case Settled with Award for Alabama Tuskegee

Syphilis Experimentation Victims


Fred Gray is a prominent Alabama civil rights attorney whose clients have included Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study . When he opened his Montgomery law office in 1954, Gray was one of the few African American attorneys in the state. His career blossomed in the context of the civil rights.

In 1973 Gray instituted a class action claim against institutions and individuals involved in the Tuskegee Syphillis Study, conducted on 600 poor black sharecroppers, in Macon County , 1932 – ‘72 (long after pencillin was available as a syphilis cure). The case,

Pollard vs. United States of America, claimed:

“1) The U.S. government violated the constitutional rights of the participants…

2) The government knew the participants had syphilis and failed to treat them.

3) The Public Health Service failed to fully disclose to the participants that they had syphilis, that they were participating in the study, and that treatment was available for syphilis.

4) The Public Health Service led the participants to believe that they were being properly treated for whatever diseases they had, when in fact, they were not being meaningfully treated.

5) The Public Health Service failed to obtain the participants’ written consents to be a part of the study.

6) The Study was racially motivated and discriminated against African Americans in that no whites were selected to participate in the Study…

7) There were no rules and regulations governing the Study.”

The final settlement was found for the plaintiff class, and they were awarded $10 million to divide amongst the living syphilitics and controls, and the relatives of the deceased.

Even with the end of the study and the settlement, the survivors and Gray were not satisfied. It was not until May 16, 1997 when President Clinton publicly apologized for the harmful and prejudice injustices that the government had committed against the participants of the study. Only seven survivors were alive to hear the apology, but it still represented closure for them and for Gray.

This nonconsensual study conducted by the U.S government, in 1932, promised 400 men – all residents of Macon County, Alabama, all poor, all African American – free treatment for Bad Blood, a euphemism for syphilis which was epidemic in the county. Treatment for syphilis was never given to the men and was in fact withheld.

The men became unwitting subjects for a government sanctioned medical investigation, The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. The Tuskegee Study, which lasted for 4 decades, until 1972, had nothing to do with treatment. No new drugs were tested; neither was any effort made to establish the efficacy of old forms of treatment. It was a non-therapeutic experiment, aimed at compiling data on the effects of the spontaneous evolution of syphilis on black males.

What has become clear since the story was broken by Jean Heller in 1972 was that the Public Health Service (PHS) was interested in using Macon County and its black inhabitants as a laboratory for studying the long-term effects of untreated syphilis, not in treating this deadly disease.

The Tuskegee Study symbolizes the medical misconduct and blatant disregard for human rights that takes place in the name of science. The studies principal investigators were not mad scientists, they were government physicians, respected men of science, who published reports on the study in the leading medical journals. The subjects of the study bear witness to the premise that the burden of medical experimentation has historically been borne by those least able to protect themselves. (tuskegee.edu, “America’s Dirty Little Secret).

The government doctors who participated in the study failed to obtain informed consent from the subjects in a study of disease with a known risk to human life. Instead, the PHS offered the men incentives to participate: free physical examinations, free rides to and from the clinics, hot meals on examination days, free treatment for minor ailments, and a guarantee that a burial stipend would be paid to their survivors. This modest stipend of $50.00 represented the only form of burial insurance that many of the men had.

By failing to obtain informed consent and offering incentives for participation, the PHS doctors were performing unethical and immoral experiments on human subjects. From the moment the experiment begun, the immorality of the experiment was blatantly apparent.

Many critics of The Tuskegee Study draw comparisons to the similar degradation of human indignity in inhumane medical experiments on humans living under the Third Reich. How could such callousness happen outside Nazi Germany? To deny that race played a role in The Tuskegee Study is naive. All 600 subjects (399 experimentals and 201 controls) were black; the PHS directors and most of the doctors who studied them were white.

In July 1972, Jean Heller broke the story. Under examination by the press, the PHS was not able to provide a formal protocol for the experiment; in fact, one never existed. While it was obvious to the American public as a whole, PHS officials maintained that they did nothing wrong. By the time the story broke, over 100 of the infected men had died, others suffered from serious syphilis-related conditions that may have contributed to their later deaths even though penicillin, an effective treatment against syphilis, was in widespread use by 1946.

In 1972, when the study was revealed publicly, one Public Service employee wrote a letter to his superiors describing how “the Tuskegee study could be compared to the German medical ‘experiments’ at Dachau, and that the Proceedings of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremburg could be used in an attack upon the moral justification for the study” (76). That is exactly what Gray did; he gathered information from the Nuremburg Trials along with evidence from the actual study which proved that the study was unconstitutional, and using it he won the case for the Tuskegee study participants. His book is a tribute to all of the participants, and his main focus is to tell their story.

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