In 1973, Lillie Head's family faced some catastrophic news. An article in Ebony magazine was making the rounds about an obscure medical study that had been conducted in Tuskegee, Alabama.
That study was the now infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, offically known as the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, carried out from 1932 to 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Services (USPHS) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Doctors selected between 600 and 623 Black men (the number is debated) from rural communities in and around Tuskegee. The men were told they had "bad blood," and in return for participating in a study on their condition, they were promised free medical treatment, along with meals at the blood testing locations and burial assurances.
In reality, "bad blood" was a code word for many ailments, including syphilis. Of those men, approximately two-thirds already had the disease, unbeknownst to them. The remaining third, who were free of it, were included in the study as a control group. The medical professionals who organized the study wanted to look at the long-term effects of syphilis on the body.
Although penicillin was found to be an effective cure for syphilis by the mid-1940s, the men were deliberately kept in the dark about their conditions, preventing them from seeking treatment. In 1936, four years after the study started, doctors decided that the men would be trial subjects until their deaths.
An estimated 128 men died of the disease and related complications over the ensuing decades. Not only that, but their wives and children were exposed to it as well, jeopardizing the health of an entire community and subsequent generations.
As Head tells it, the way her family found out about the study added to the horror of the situation. Her brother Wallace, who was then in the Air Force, was the one to broach the bad news to their father, Fred Lee Tyson. She relates, "He called my father and said, 'Dad, there was this article in Ebony magazine about a study that was done and has gone on for over 40 years! Do you know anything about that?' And Daddy said, 'No, I don't know anything about that.' My brother said, 'Well, you didn't know because they didn't tell you.'"
A few days later, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (control of the study had moved from the USPHS to the CDC by the 1960s) called Tyson's home in Connecticut. It was all true. Tyson was one of the victims of the study, and the whole family, his wife Johnnie Mae Tyson and their eight children, would have to be tested to make sure that they, too, were not at risk from the disease.
"We, the family, were in shock," Head says. No one in her family could quite fathom why doctors would do such a thing, over so many years, to innocent men, women and children. For her father, it was a horrible blow. "I know my father...