In this 1950's photo released by the National Archives, a black man included in a syphilis study has blood drawn by a doctor in Tuskegee, Ala. For 40 years starting in 1932, medical workers in the segregated South withheld treatment for unsuspecting men infected with a sexually transmitted disease simply so doctors could track the ravages of the horrid illness and dissect their bodies afterward. Finally exposed in 1972, the study ended and the men sued, resulting in a $9 million settlement. (National Archives via AP)

by Naba’a Muhammad and Michael Z. Muhammad | The Final Call | @TheFinalCall

Emphatically no, Walt Boarderly, an entrepreneur and Philadelphia business owner, replied when asked if he would take the Covid-19 vaccine. Mr. Boaderly isn’t anti-vaccine, saying he will take the flu shot. “There is just too much uncertainty when it comes to this new vaccine,” he said.

A man at the V.D. clinic in Union Point, Green County, Georgia, 1941.
Photo: Library of Congress

Blacks do not trust President Trump’s Covid-19 vaccine push, and there is plenty of reason to be distrustful. Black people have been the victims of medical experiment, exploitation and abuses by their White enslavers and White doctors from the time the good ship Jesus hit America’s shores. These medical researchers have been like a pack of crazed dogs chasing their helpless prey.

In her comprehensive book “Medical Apartheid,” Harriett Washington details abuses committed against Blacks and how throughout the 19th century medical schools used Blacks in live surgical demonstrations.


In more recent times, she wrote, Blacks have been disproportionately enrolled in risky, nonbeneficial research in gynecology, oncology, surgery, pediatrics, infectious diseases, and genetics.

Medical Apartheid tells the story of slaves and Black freedmen used in hospitals for experiments without their knowledge or consent. Blacks have historically been victims of grave-robbing, unauthorized autopsies and dissections, Frankenstein-like behavior by White medical researchers.

The American Medical Women’s Association sponsored a Sept. 19 Zoom conversation on Medical Apartheid as part of its “Racism in Medicine Monthly Discussion.”

Primary participants in the discussion were medical students and pre-med students.

The session opened with some basic questions, like whether doctors during slavery focused on the health of enslaved persons. Surprisingly many participants believed those doctors were concerned about slaves’ health—they weren’t. The doctors had a “pact” to inspect slaves to make sure they were fit for work, to determine their value given their ability to work and performed examinations for insurance companies before policies on slaves were issued to slave owners.

Dr. P. Oneeka Williams, a urologist based in Brighton, Mass., was one of two main presenters. She saluted Ms. Washington for her work and talked about the “pervasive practice” of using enslaved people for experiments.

She focused on Dr. James Marion Sims as the “father of gynecology,” lionized for his treatments for women. But, said Dr. Williams, “These advances along with so many other physicians, really came on the backs of the violations and the atrocities and the disgusting treatment of Black bodies.”

Born in 1813 in South Carolina, Dr. Simms underwent one and a half years of medical training, which he considered inadequate and started practicing on Alabama plantations. He experimented on enslaved Black children stricken by tetanus and enslaved Black women. In 1845, he used forceps, despite limited experience, to deliver a child from a slave girl. The baby died and the mother developed a “vesicorectal fistula,” a devastating condition involving the bladder and the rectum. It was a condition that women, Black and White, often suffered from. He acquired 11 slave women with the condition, housed them and started experimenting with surgical repair. The woman had no consent, no anesthesia and were put on display. The surgeries were painful, frequently broke down and required multiple surgeries with physicians coming to observe his procedures, said Dr. Williams, a Black woman. The enslaved women’s piercing screams could be heard, she said.

Dr. Simms developed a procedure to treat the condition, practicing for three years on enslaved Black women. He started publishing articles about his dubious success in 1852 and began operating on White women. As abolitionists objected to using Blacks for medical experimentation, he started to hide the race of his test subjects. He later became president of the American Medical Association  and opened the first hospital for women in New York City in 1875. His name is enshrined on buildings, hospitals and statues were erected in his honor.

In 2018, protests led to the removal of his statue in New York’s Central Park. Officials relocated it to his gravesite in Brooklyn.

Biases and racism “would not impact on the medical profession any differently than it impacts on any other categories in life,” said Dr. Williams.

In this 1950’s photo released by the National Archives, men included in a syphilis study pose for a photo in Tuskegee, Ala. For 40 years starting in 1932, medical workers in the segregated South withheld treatment for unsuspecting men infected with a sexually transmitted disease simply so doctors could track the ravages of the horrid illness and dissect their bodies afterward. It was finally exposed in 1972. (National Archives via AP)

Race-based beliefs became seen as “real science” and are still perpetuated, she added.

Dr. Williams believes educating and raising awareness of medical students and professionals alongside elementary, high school and college students are important to help resolve the problem. She has seen instances today in which physicians “have not valued Black lives,” though it may not be conscious.

Medical Apartheid chronicles how in the 17th and 18th century enslaved Blacks were used for vaccine trials, smallpox in particular, without their consent and once the vaccines were effective, the cures were released into the general population, said Dr. Williams. 

“We have to look at history so that when people try to diminish the concerns of Black people about being potentially the unwitting participants of some type of trial that is about using us as guinea pigs that it’s not a kind of hearsay. It’s not ‘oh I think, I’m guessing,’ ” she continued.

“Here it’s factual information that supports why the skepticism exists and why there has to be a clear set of strategies about how do you really help Blacks to feel confident and reassured that they are not going to be used in a kind of experimentation process that has been done even in our contemporary times. This is not centuries ago, this is within recent history, 10, 20, 30 years, we’re still seeing situations where Blacks have been used as part of unconsenting experimental protocols to their detriment.”

Even the infamous Tuskegee Experiment has aspects that are not generally talked about. In Medical Apartheid, the author reveals how the syphilis study, started in 1932, was based on the belief that racial differences and irresponsible Black behavior accounted for syphilis infections among poor Blacks. Most cases were actually due to disease transmission from mothers to children.

There was a profit motive in the study as the federal government hoped to come out with a lucrative vaccine and wanted to follow the 600 male patients until they died.

When the federal government’s wickedness was uncovered, some documents were hidden from a panel that was supposed to look into the genocidal activity and the victims were eventually paid a pittance. In 1943, penicillin, a treatment for syphilis, was discovered but never given to study victims. In addition to the deaths of the men, at least 40 wives and almost 20 children were infected.

In 1965, the study was discovered and a leftist, social activist group tried to stop it, but was ignored. By 1969, 100 men had died from direct and indirect complications from syphilis. Peter Buxton, a Polish immigrant, working within the study called for ending it. In 1972, he shared the nefarious experiment with a friend, who was an AP reporter. Ted Kennedy held hearings, an investigation was opened, but a historian was never involved and a panel was formed to look into the study. The panel was given less than one year to do its work, some documents were “deliberately hidden,” the panel chair forced a “softening of the language” of the initial report and submitted it with a cover letter abstaining from agreement with the report.

Tapes of interviews with every victim were kept but destroyed, and in 1995 a doctor determined the study’s chief purpose was to create a reliable vaccine and the results of the study were used to create advanced tests for syphilis and vaccines that were marketed globally.

“The original U.S. contract with the Alabama Dept. of Health stipulated that the U.S. government owns any invention arising from the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and so, the U.S. government profited tremendously off the backs of these men and their families and continued to do so,” said the moderator for the online session. The CDC also soft pedals the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, though President Clinton apologized for it, she added.

“If you look at themes throughout the book, this is all economically driven,” commented Dr. Williams. “The very agencies that are supposed to be committed to protect the population, to protect the people, the American government, when you look at what was really the motivation for this study.”

“Even today we are seeing what we are seeing with covid and misinformation, deception, parties that are changing the narrative, changing information, changing things that impact our peoples’ lives,” she said. Things like not testing asymptomatic people have far-reaching effects into the health of the nation, Dr. Williams observed.

You’re exposing people to a potential deadly pathogen, she continued. “But who are the people who are disproportionately suffering from that virus? All of these threads when you look at how interwoven the government agencies have been in the deception, in the abuse of Black and Brown bodies, it’s really very, very disconcerting,” said Dr. Williams.

Black only medicine?

Dr. Vanessa Al Rashida, who practices medicine in New Mexico, presented information about the continued use of race as a basis for research based on a chapter in Medical Apartheid.

The public health field has contributed to misinformation going back to slavery, said Dr. Al Rashida. Early U.S. Census studies found free Blacks suffered more from alcoholism and died because of recklessness, she said. The theory was Whites needed to shepherd Black people, the physician added.

In 2005, a drug that the Food and Drug Administration initially denied for wide use was approved for use only in Black Americans with heart failure, she said. The drug was Bidil. 

In the 1980s, surveys had found heart failure was twice as common in older Blacks than Caucasians, which is not the case today, she said.

But Blacks dying more often led the company NitroMed to postulate a genetic cause of the disease disparity. FDA approved research for the drug. Clyde Yancey, a Black cardiologist, and others objected to the premise of race-based differences as opposed to differences based on environment and lifestyle. The NitroMed approach ignored these things but a Black cardiologists group approved the study.

Most diseases Blacks suffer are driven by environment, not any inherent difference based on genetics and race, said Dr. Al Rashida.

“The African American Heart Failure Trials” in 2003 was composed of Blacks only, one group with approved heart medications put against another group of Black Americans using heart medications and Bidil, she explained.

She questioned the methodology of the study, which showed some Bidil benefit in curbing deaths, and FDA approved the drug which is still used today.

The study made “me sick for a while,” said Dr. Al Rashida.

A non-genetic disease of heart failure, which other studies have shown is often due to high blood pressure caused by environmental factors in Black Americans, is being treated with “genetic treatments,” she said. That concerns her. Research has shown little genetic difference between people based on race, said Dr. Al Rashida, who read Medical Apartheid in medical school. It was given to her as a gift from a family friend.

The Nitro-Med study would have had more weight if it compared Black Americans to Caucasians, she said. But, it only compared Black Americans and the reason for that  was money, she said.

“It was not economically feasible for the company to add in Caucasians with African Americans to be compared in the study,” said Dr. Al Rashida.

“It’s also kind of scary to me that future studies are being based on this whole precipice that race is playing a part in diseases that we are seeing in the country. Whereas that’s not the case at all. It’s environment and it’s also lifestyle behaviors too that have been rooted back into slavery.”

That includes how Black people eat, added Dr. Al Rashida.

“I try to be very optimistic and I want to see better for our country, but at the same time, it’s very scary—especially with the current leadership that we have in certain institutions. It’s going to be a very difficult hill to climb essentially,” she said.

If research determines that illness or disorders are based on racial differences, not environment, it is easier to dismiss the need to make changes in society and argue the conditions or illnesses are inevitable.

Prisons, hospitals and the devil’s playground for reckless research

There are other concerns about vaccines and negative impacts on Blacks. Since 2014, controversy has brewed over a Centers for Disease researcher who charged the agency with hiding research results linking an experimental measles vaccines with increased Black male children developing autism. Dr. William Thompson, who made the charges, has called for an opportunity to testify before Congress. Though CDC denies his charge, there has been no congressional hearing.

Ms. Washington has written about a 1970 Johns Hopkins Free Child Care program for more than 7,000 young boys, “ ‘95 percent from underprivileged Negro families’—who used as guinea pigs in a three-year experiment that could have branded them as latent criminals for life. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the project extracted blood samples, ostensibly to test for anemia and other medical problems.” She wrote that testing was done without parental knowledge or consent.

In a piece published in the Baltimore Sun, Ms. Washington wrote, “In 1962, Dr. Chester M. Southam of the Sloan-Kettering Institute injected at least 396 inmates at Ohio State Prison—almost half of them black—with live human cancer cells.”

According to Allan Hornblum, author of “Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison,” “Holmesburg Prison became one of America’s largest, nontherapeutic, human research factories. The Pennsylvania prison was about 85 percent Black, and there were very few high school graduates, he wrote.

Dr. Albert Kligman, Ph.D. and M.D., University of Pennsylvania, began dermatology research before 1951 when he visited the prison, said the book author.

Dr. Klingman envisioned using the skin of inmates his dermatology drug trials, trials for anti-obesity drugs, viral infections, and bacterial infections, wrote Mr. Hornblum.

All kinds of tests, foot powder, eye drops, face creams, underarm deodorant, toothpaste, liquid diets, were used, leaving inmates scarred and often suffering. Dr. Klingman reportedly declared, “All I saw before me were acres of skin … It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time,” according to the book.

In 1979, the Philadelphia Inquirer disclosed that Holmesburg inmates had been used as guinea pigs to test whether mind-altering drugs were useful as Army weapons. In 1981 the paper reported that inmates had been dosed with dioxin to test the herbicide’s effects on humans.

In “American Mengele: Human Radiation Experiments,” Ryan Grimm detailed what he called experiments more horrible than Tuskegee. He wrote about experiments conducted by Dr. Eugene L. Saenger at Cincinnati General Hospital from 1960 to 1972. The Department of Defense paid him, and several government agencies used his findings. 

“What makes radiation experiments like Saenger’s more horrible than those at Tuskegee is that, in these cases, doctors were not merely watching an already existing disease take its course. Instead, Saenger deliberately injected hundreds of people with potentially lethal doses of radiation, knowing that most of them would die rather quickly,” wrote Mr. Grimm.

“At least 89 people are acknowledged to have died due to Saenger’s treatment, although the number is likely well above 200. Dr. Saenger even copped to the crime and openly defended his actions as necessary preparation for nuclear war. He was never charged with a crime.”

His average patient had five years of formal education, an average I.Q. of 89 and 62 percent were Black.

A study conducted in part by researchers from the Maryland Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland-College Park, found many Blacks don’t get flu shots because they don’t trust the vaccine. reported 58 percent of respondents to their survey would not take a Covid-19 vaccination as soon as it is available. Fifty-eight percent said “no” to the vaccine, 22 percent reported they would take the vaccine but had “concerns.” Eighty percent respondents either said “no” or had “concerns” about taking a Covid-19 vaccine, citing mistrust of the health care system.