Tuskegee Institute

Tuskegee Institute

"The United States government did something that was wrong—deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens. . . . clearly racist."
—President Clinton's apology for the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment to the eight remaining survivors, May 16, 1997

For forty years between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted an experiment on 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis. These men, for the most part illiterate sharecroppers from one of the poorest counties in Alabama, were never told what disease they were suffering from or of its seriousness. Informed that they were being treated for “bad blood,” their doctors had no intention of curing them of syphilis at all. The data for the experiment was to be collected from autopsies of the men, and they were thus deliberately left to degenerate under the ravages of tertiary syphilis—which can include tumors, heart disease, paralysis, blindness, insanity, and death. “As I see it,” one of the doctors involved explained, “we have no further interest in these patients until they die.”


Lewis Adams, a former slave and successful tradesman, was the founding force behind the establishment of a school at Tuskegee. He made a deal to deliver African-American voters in the 1880 election. In return, the Alabama legislature passed a bill to "establish a Normal School for colored teachers at Tuskegee." He insisted on having an African-American principal and Booker T. Washington was hired. (National Park Service)

  • Tuskegee University a study in black history (Journal Sentinel) February 18, 2007.
    Some of the most courageous fighter pilots of World War II and peanut margarine share common roots. So do author Ralph Ellison, pioneer research in the field of polio vaccines and the first African-American four-star general. All are products of the Tuskegee University, the only college or university designated a national historic site by the United States Congress.

HeLa Distribution Center

  • Medical Apartheid: Bad Medicine (Our Weekly) August 19, 2010.
    What Blacks did not know, did hurt - Apartheid is a term according to modern-day dictionaries that originated from the South African revolution and the termination of the Botha government. When apartheid is combined with other words there may be somewhat of a gray area in interpretation.

  • Race and the Politics of Polio: Warm Springs, Tuskegee, and the March of Dimes (National Center for Biotechnology Information) May 2007.
    The Tuskegee Institute opened a polio center in 1941, funded by the March of Dimes. The center’s founding was the result of a new visibility of Black polio survivors and the growing political embarrassment around the policy of the Georgia Warm Springs polio rehabilitation center, which Franklin Roosevelt had founded in the 1920s before he became president and which had maintained a Whites-only policy of admission. This policy, reflecting the ubiquitous norm of race-segregated health facilities of the era, was also sustained by a persuasive scientific argument about polio itself: that Blacks were not susceptible to the disease.

  • The Mass Production and Distribution of HeLa Cells at Tuskegee Institute, 1953-55 (Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences) 1983.
    In 1938 the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was established to sponsor research and education related to poliomyelitis. Aggressive fund-raising by the March of Dimes provided substantial support for research on the etiology, transmission, treatment, and eventually the development of effective vaccines. This report is concerned with the historical role of the HeLa cell in the evaluation of the field trial of the Salk vaccine.  

Syphilis Study

  • Tuskegee Virtual Museum (US Public Health Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male in Macon County, Alabama)

  • Tuskegee & The Black Community (Precinct Reporter Group)
    "All I knew was that they just kept saying I had the bad blood--they never mentioned syphilis to me, not even once,” said Tuskegee Syphilis Study participant Charles Pollard. Mr. Pollard was referring to the early 1930s when he was a participant in the Tuskegee Study. He was also one of the last eight living participants when Pres. Bill Clinton apologized to the men at the White House in 1997, saying, "They were denied help, and they were lied to by their government." 

  • Apology for Study Done in Tuskegee (National Archives) May 16, 1997.
    The eight men who are survivors of the syphilis study at Tuskegee are a living link to a time not so very long ago that many Americans would prefer not to remember, but we dare not forget. It was a time when our nation failed to live up to its ideals, when our nation broke the trust with our people that is the very foundation of our democracy. It is not only in remembering that shameful past that we can make amends and repair our nation, but it is in remembering that past that we can build a better present and a better future. And without remembering it, we cannot make amends and we cannot go forward.

Russell W. Brown

Russell W. Brown

Russell Wilfrid Brown was a faculty member at Tuskegee institute starting in the 1930s, and is credited with the invention of the viral impinger which injects foreign matter into a cell. Brown is also remembered for developing the Carver Research Foundation’s tissue culture laboratory, which produced cultures of mammalian cells on a massive scale. During his career, Brown worked extensively in research on bacteriology, immunology, and HeLa cells. Although Brown’s research did not specifically lead to the development of a polio vaccine, HeLa cell research in general played a key role in Jonas Salk’s successful development of a vaccine. Brown also authored several articles for scientific journals on various subjects, including systematic bacteriology, physiology of bacteria, and virus-host cell relationships. (Tuskegee University Archives)