An answer, of sorts, for Tod

Over at the main page, Tod asks:

If we were to make a list of the top three most evil events in the history of mankind, what event(s) do you feel certain should make that list?

I will admit that one event sprung to mind, but I refrained from posting it over in the comments.

Why did I refrain?  Because I cannot plausibly argue that it is one of the most evil events in the history of mankind.

Indeed, when one considers the crimes of Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and all of history’s worst monsters, the event I have in mind is small potatoes.  I cannot stack it against the Holocaust or the Great Leap Forward or the Trail of Tears or the Reign of Terror or any of the other catastrophes that humanity has inflicted upon itself.  I am not enough of a student of history to lay claim to an authoritative answer, in any case.

But when asked to name an undeniably evil event in the history of mankind, my thoughts went immediately to the Tuskegee syphilis study.

Some details (via NPR) for those of you unfamiliar with the study:

The Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute, began the study in 1932. Nearly 400 poor black men with syphilis from Macon County, Ala., were enrolled in the study. They were never told they had syphilis, nor were they ever treated for it. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the men were told they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several illnesses, including syphilis, anemia and fatigue.

For participating in the study, the men were given free medical exams, free meals and free burial insurance.

At the start of the study, there was no proven treatment for syphilis. But even after penicillin became a standard cure for the disease in 1947, the medicine was withheld from the men. The Tuskegee scientists wanted to continue to study how the disease spreads and kills. The experiment lasted four decades, until public health workers leaked the story to the media.

By then, dozens of the men had died, and many wives and children had been infected.

Now, nobody was deliberately infected with syphilis.  Nobody was tortured or killed outright.  The victims numbered in the dozens, not thousands or millions.

But all the same, allowing people to sicken and die, and to infect innocent others who would sicken or be born to a life of permanent infirmity, is evil.  For decades, it was known that penicillin would cure these men, but they were deliberately allowed to remain infected and infectious because their illness was the study’s goal, not their welfare.  It was such a gross, contemptible breach of medical ethics that it is now a staple of medical ethics classes when discussing what one should never, ever do, and is a foundational case in the current approach to informed consent.

My disgust and horror at this event is no doubt informed by my own life experience.  It occurred before I was born, but it was located within my country and within my chosen profession.  I have particular loathing from the smorgasbord of human depravity for physicians who do deliberate harm to their patients, from contemporary butchers to the man I consider to be the worst monster of Nazi Germany.  While I would not put the doctors of the Tuskegee experiment in the same category as Mengele, what they did was evil nonetheless.

So that’s my sort-of answer to your question, Tod.  If I had to name the most evil events, I don’t know how one could list anything before the Holocaust, though Hitler has plenty of company in the 20th century’s cavalcade of horrors.  But if asked to name the first thing that popped into my head when I thought of an answer, mine would be the Tuskegee syphilis study.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.

One Comment

  1. I think this falls into the catagory of “stuff gov’t does to it’s own people” evilness. Just like Stalin’s killings, Pol Pots, etc.

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