Remembering Tuskegee: Comparing Two Approaches to Studying the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

By Sujay Kulshrestha
2011, Vol. 3 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

Doctor injecting a patient with placebo as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis StudyHistory selectively chooses which events in our past gain notoriety in the present. This selectivity has some basis in the events’ significance, but it is also related to our natural curiosity about the past. Unfortunately, for many, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments remain largely unknown among the general population. Rumors abound that the United States knowingly gave participants syphilis, that the study was an attempt at racial elimination, that the conductors of the study may have had illicit relations with the participants, and many other wildly imagined scenarios. In studying the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments−such a specific event in our past−one must consider the nature of the few sources in existence and their contributions to an understanding of the study itself.

Both Fred Gray’s The Tuskegee Syphilis Study and Susan M. Reverby’s Examining Tuskegee: the Infamous Syphilis Study and its Legacy take a critical look at the events of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, but with a varied approach. Fred Gray, a civil rights attorney who represented the participants in their fight for recognition and compensation, published his book in 1998, immediately after what can be considered the final event of the Tuskegee Experiment and its aftermath: the Presidential Apology. Being an integral part of the study in the era after its formal termination, Gray conveys a more personal account of the trials through his book that provides a more detailed look at the events that occur mainly after the termination of the study, from 1972-1997. Naturally, with this direct account comes the slight tempering of the story by opinion and bias; one can argue that Susan Reverby’s book maintains a certain level of scholarly impartiality. Published in 2009, a full ten years following the apology by Bill Clinton, Reverby provides an account of the entire study as a whole, surveying the period from the late 1800s to 2009. Having spent a significant portion of her life, roughly twenty years, researching the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, Reverby is able to provide a more well-rounded view of the trials while simultaneously focusing on a few key individuals within the study.1 When considering these two sources in comparison with one another, it becomes important to note the differing approaches to studying the Tuskegee Trials, the sources employed by each author in providing a view on this key event in , and the potential strengths and weaknesses that each approach confers on an understanding of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

Thoroughly studying the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments is obviously a huge task to undertake. Gray and Reverby tackle this task in two wildly different ways, stemming from the tools and backgrounds they each possess. When reading Gray’s The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Gray takes great pains to detail the events chronologically as they occurred or as he learned of them; in effect, he is telling the story of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment as it happened to him, beginning his book with his discovery of the trial.2 Gray provides a short context of the trials, detailing life and conditions in Macon County for African Americans.3 This portion of the book seems to have been researched after the events of the trial−it includes numerous citations of autobiographies and scholarly works pertaining to the era prior to the initiation of the trials. After this short background, Gray begins the part of the book that stems from his knowledge attained from researching for the lawsuit. He starts with a brief discussion of syphilis, noting that he “knew little of the particulars of the disease.”4 He goes on to note that he learns most of the information on the disease from legal documents and from talking to doctors, clearly research undertaken in order to represent the plaintiffs of the case. As a result, the bulk of the book stems from his legal knowledge and deals with his attempts to gain retribution for the acts of the Tuskegee Trials. In addition, Gray focuses his survey on Tuskegee in the era following the termination of the trial, mainly detailing his fight for compensation, the call for an apology from the President, and the legacy of the trials. Gray’s focus on the era of the trial includes a higher emphasis on the individuality of the surviving participants, whose lives he details in the pages of the book.5 When reading Gray’s account of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, one clearly gets a more in-depth look into the portion that Gray had his hand in: the aftermath of the experiment.

While Gray focuses his attention on his attempt to win compensation for the victims, Susan Reverby takes a broader look at the trials in Examining Tuskegee. Reverby approaches her retelling of the study by splitting the book into three sections, entitled: “Testimony,” “Testifying,” and “Traveling.” These sections can be characterized as providing a survey of the Tuskegee Syphilis Trial to the immediate media response that ensued after its termination (Testimony), providing personal accounts of a few key individuals related to the study (Testifying), and providing an insight into the legacy of the study (Traveling).6 Reverby’s approach is more comprehensive. She spends a great deal of time detailing aspects of black prior to Tuskegee, giving readers a great deal of background and context for the trials before recounting the events of the experiments in great detail. Furthermore, Reverby splits her narration of Tuskegee into three chapters, following a typical plot curve: the first of the three chapters deals with the initiation and the rise of the study, the second deals with attempts to stop the study and why they failed, and the third deals with the actual termination of the study and resulting media response. Reverby uses her investigative skills to supply readers with insights into the lives of a few key individuals related to the trials of varying backgrounds: the participants of the trials, the doctors who conducted the trial, Eugene Dibble, and Nurse Eunice Rivers. She concludes her analysis of Tuskegee by detailing its legacy in the 37 years since its termination. In short, Reverby’s research and use of scholarly analytical methods allow her to survey the study in great detail, before considering the individual and enduring aspects of the experiment.

Each of the approaches that Gray and Reverby take towards an examination of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is informed by the sources used in constructing an analysis of the trials. Both Gray and Reverby use wildly different sources in writing each book, resulting in two very different investigations of the events at Tuskegee. Gray, being an integral part of the process to win compensation for the victims at Tuskegee, relies mainly on the research done in preparation for trial. Of the events recounted in the book, any event occurring in 1972 is noted by Gray as having some basis in the research done by Jim Jones for his trial.7 As a result, most of this portion of the book is derived from primary sources detailing life during the Tuskegee trials, government documents providing insight into the PHS view of the study, and medical records of the participants. Seeing as only 3-4 chapters recount events before this era, it is clear that most of the book is a personal, firsthand account of Tuskegee−a look at Gray’s bibliography confirms a lack of outside source material.8 If nothing else, the book can be considered a primary source in terms of studying the events of the aftermath of Tuskegee; Gray retells his involvement with the trials with great detail, making The Tuskegee Syphilis Study a memoir of sorts.

Alternatively, Reverby’s survey of the events of Tuskegee is compiled largely from research. More specifically, Reverby writes her book with the assistance of both primary and secondary sources. She cites Jim Jones as laying the foundation for research of primary sources on Tuskegee; Jim Jones, therefore, seems to have linked both books by initially conducting research into the nature of the trials. 9 Furthermore, a glance at Reverby’s bibliography demonstrates an overwhelming amount of secondary source material over primary source material.10 This balance of source material stems from the fact that the bulk of Reverby’s research took place in the late 1990’s to early 2000’s. As such, most of her research will consist of her investigatory work of primary sources taken long ago, rather than firsthand interviews of individuals associated with the Tuskegee Experiment. Taking the facts from primary sources and deriving her own opinion, Reverby’s Examining Tuskegee is a true secondary source.

As with any study into history, it is important to consider the strengths and weaknesses that each author’s approach confers upon a study of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. The author’s differing backgrounds reveals itself in a reading of each book; each book has a different focus, a different bias, and a different way of addressing the events at Tuskegee. Gray, being present for the latter half of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, provides an excellent recollection of the entire story as it pertains to him. This focus reveals itself as both a strength and a weakness; while Gray does an excellent job of retelling the events that he had his hand in, he falls short when he details the actual story itself. It is easy to see that Gray is the foremost authority on the events of the trial and struggle for retribution, as such it makes his focus on the results of Tuskegee worthwhile−he can provide the most insight on this portion of the Tuskegee Experiments. Furthermore, Gray’s The Tuskegee Syphilis Study does excel at one aspect of portraying the events at Tuskegee: delving into the lives of some of the individual participants. As a result of his close interaction with the surviving participants, Gray seems to be more touched by the individual story of the study, taking great pains to detail, at least briefly, the surviving participants’ lives since Tuskegee.11 In investigations of Tuskegee, one finds that there is a shocking detachment from the individuals of the study in favor of a more generalized view of the participants. Gray combats this by devoting a section to the participants and constantly making sure to emphasize the importance of recognizing them as individuals; while Reverby does devote a section to the participants, her focus is on one or two individuals, instead favoring sweeping generalizations about the individual participants of the study.

However, while Gray’s book does successfully detail the events of the aftermath of Tuskegee and properly individualizes the participants, it does have its own shortcomings. Gray’s somewhat lackluster explanation of the events of the actual experiment, as derived from the research he performed for the trial, somewhat belittles the actual events and atrocities committed, especially in a discussion considering the entire Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. One could argue that Gray’s book is an investigation of the aftermath of the events at Tuskegee, not Tuskegee itself. In addition, as with any book written primarily from personal experience, Gray brings a certain amount of bias to his story. Having a personal connection to the story of the events at Tuskegee, Gray does temper his recount with a little opinion; at one point, he asks rhetorically if there is any doubt whatsoever that the men “felt like ‘human guinea pigs.’”12 Statements such as this pepper his writing, indicating a strong bias towards the men of the study, his clients. As such, Gray’s words should be taken with caution: as their lawyer, he is more than entitled to speak out for their welfare.

Unlike Gray, Reverby focuses more attention to the events of the actual study. She starts by providing a stronger background to the study, detailing the histories of the Tuskegee Institution, Syphilis, and the Public Health Service. In providing a background to the reader, Reverby increases the readers’ grasp of some of the key aspects and institutions of the study. Furthermore, Reverby’s background on Macon County demographics and prior research into syphilis provides readers with knowledge of the public health efforts in relation to African Americans−obviously valuable knowledge when investigating and understanding Tuskegee. In addition to a better background to the study, Reverby provides a stronger overview of the study and its events. Splitting her account of the Tuskegee experiments into three sections, as previously discussed, allows Reverby to include more detail about the experiments themselves. Reverby addresses aspects of the trial that Gray does not, including efforts attain to funding,13 cooperation and coordination with local, state, and federal health officials,14 as well as potential whistle-blowers.15 Gray’s failure to address these aspects of the trial proves that his account is not as well rounded as Reverby’s. In addition to detailing the events of the trial, Reverby provides a stronger insight into the architects of the study. Reverby devotes three chapters to discussing the role of the Public Health Service doctors who created and continued the experiments, Dr. Eugene Dibble, the physician who worked at Tuskegee, and Nurse Eunice Rivers, who took care of the participants through the majority of the trial. Detailing the lives of these individuals in connection with the study provides a greater awareness of the converging personalities that resulted in the Tuskegee Study. Without Reverby’s extensive discussion of these characters, it would be hard to understand the genesis of the Tuskegee Experiment.

However, while Reverby does successfully address some aspects of Tuskegee, she falls short in others. Reverby’s focus on individuals of the study, which provided a greater understanding of the architects, inadequately addresses the participants of the study. Reverby reduces roughly 600 individuals into two representative participants and a series of generalizations.16 In an examination of a study that ignored the individual rights and needs of hundreds of black men, it seems imprudent to ignore their story. Furthermore, Reverby’s account of the events that followed the termination of the Tuskegee trial has its own shortcomings. Given her vantage point, thirty years removed from the end of the trials, one could argue that Reverby seems to have an advantage in commenting on the events that make up the legacy of the experiment. However, Reverby spends little time on the events that follow the trial, choosing instead to focus on the imprint that the study makes on American . For example, Reverby focuses a small section on the desire for a presidential apology; conversely, Gray spends pages detailing the hard work that he put in to orchestrate such an event. In short, while Reverby does adequately address the events and architects of Tuskegee, she fails to address the participants and post-termination events.

In considering any era in history, it becomes important to evaluate the nature of the sources being used to understand the time in question. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments are no exception to this rule. Fred Gray and Susan Reverby offer two techniques for examining the events of the Tuskegee Experiments, each following a different methodology that results in different advantages and disadvantages. Gray, architect of the trial designed to attain compensation for the victims of Tuskegee, structures his book around his experiences in relation to the events at Tuskegee. Gray’s book takes advantage of his personal expertise as the trial’s lawyer and provides a more detailed recount of the events that followed the termination of the study, though at a loss for details on the study itself. Reverby, Professor of Women’s Studies, approaches her examination of the events of Tuskegee by providing exploring the background for the study as well as the study itself, before focusing on some of its key participants and legacy. This approach provides a more detailed look at the study itself, while also providing focus to key features of the study and its aftermath. In any case, a consideration of the Tuskegee Syphilis Trials should take advantage of both sources, to glean as much information as possible.


1. Susan M. Reverby. Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and its Legacy. The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture., eds. Waldo E. Martin, Patricia Sullivan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 6.

2. Fred D. Gray, The Tuskegee Syphilis Study (Montgomery: NewSouth Books, 1998), 17.

3. Ibid., 26-36.

4. Ibid., 37.

5. Ibid., 105.

6. Reverby, Examining Tuskegee, 7.

7. Gray, The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 45.

8. Ibid., 171.

9. Reverby, Examining Tuskegee, x.

10. Ibid., 335-362.

11. Gray, The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 106-108.

12. Ibid., 65.

13. Reverby, Examining Tuskegee, 62.

14. Ibid., 39.

15. Ibid., 76.

16. Ibid., 111-117.

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