The headline in the research journal was so startling that Dr. Irwin Schatz had to read it several times before it sunk in:
“The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis: 30 years of Observation”
The year was 1964 and Dr. Schatz was a young cardiologist at Henry Ford Hospital when he came upon the study.
Little did he know at the time that his subsequent actions and response to the study would become a lasting legacy, a point remembered and celebrated in pieces written this week in the New York Times and Washington Post to mark Dr. Schatz’s recent passing at the age of 83.
Dr. Schatz was called the “first, lonely voice” to object to the now-infamous clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African-American men in Alabama.
Only four years out of medical school and with limited resources, Dr. Schatz was truly courageous in his actions.
Objecting to the experiments on uneducated black men of the Tuskegee, Dr. Schatz wrote a scathing letter to the study authors at the U.S. Public Health Service.
While there was no treatment for syphilis when the study began in 1932, there certainly was a proven, effective treatment available to patients when the study was published – a point strongly noted in the letter Dr. Schatz wrote to the study authors in 1965.
The study had deliberately withheld treatment from the men – and in most cases, the men were not even told that they had this potentially fatal disease, passing it along to women and children.
And the study was conducted without the patients’ informed consent.
According to the New York Times, about two-thirds of the 600 men enrolled in the Tuskegee study “had already contracted syphilis. All were told that they had ‘bad blood,’ but none were given penicillin, even after it became a proven treatment for the disease in the 1940s.”
It was a point that Dr. Schatz, as a physician, could not ignore.
His letter to the study authors read:
“I am utterly astounded by the fact that physicians allow patients with a potentially fatal disease to remain untreated when effective therapy is available…I assume you feel that the information which is extracted from observation of this untreated group is worth their sacrifice. If this is the case, then I suggest the United States Public Health Service and those physicians associated with it in this study need to re-evaluate their moral judgments in this regard.”
The letter, however, went unanswered.
Two years would pass until the U.S. Public Health Service would receive another letter, similarly questioning its morality and strongly objecting to the study – and another five years after that before the concerns would be brought to light and made public.
Dr. Schatz’s letter wouldn’t be seen again until 1972, when a Freedom of Information Act request from a Wall Street Journal reporter uncovered it the same year the study was first reported on thanks to a health service employee turned whistle-blower.
When the letter was discovered in 1972, it had a memo stapled to it.
The note was from one of the study authors to her supervisor and read: “This is the first letter of this type we have received. I do not plan to answer this letter.”
Although Dr. Schatz’s letter initially went unanswered, its contents coupled with news of the study would ultimately help to launch a national debate about medical ethics – leading to work to ensure study patients’ right and new standards involving human research subjects.
After leaving Henry Ford Hospital, Dr. Schatz went on to have a distinguished career as a cardiologist and medical educator, both at the University of Michigan and the University of Hawaii.
He will be long remembered for his professional career, and how he changed clinical research and medical ethics with the courage to write a letter and speak out against injustice.
For this, he will forever hold a place of distinction in American medicine.