Tuskegee Tragedy

A WebQuest Exploring The Powerful and their Victims

Introduction | The Task | Background | Individual | Group | Feedback | Conclusion | Dictionary

Imagine that you're a poor person living during hard economic times. Your government offers you free medical care. Sounds good. But what if the real reason you're approached is because you have a disease. But instead of giving you medical care, the doctors are really just watching what happens when this disease goes untreated. Suppose a miracle then happens and a treatment is found for your disease. Instead of giving you the new medicine, the doctors continue the experiment of watching the disease go untreated. Years pass, some of your friends who were also in the study die, some pass the disease to their wives and children.

Is this the storyline for a new movie? Would anyone get sucked into such a unbelievable plot? Don't they say that truth is stranger than fiction? So here's the truth according to the Cable News Network (CNN):

"Beginning in the 1930s, 399 men signed up with the U.S. Public Health Service for free medical care. The service was conducting a study on the effects of syphilis on the human body. The men were never told they had syphilis. They were told they had "bad blood" and were denied access to treatment, even for years after penicillin came into use in 1947. By the time the study was exposed in 1972, 28 men had died of syphilis, 100 others were dead of related complications, at least 40 wives had been infected and 19 children had contracted the disease at birth."
(Quoted from CNN Interactive's Tuskegee Study Website)

It's hard to imagine anything as bad as this. And yet people have come to use the Tuskegee Study in comparison to other topics like abortion, gun control, and concentration camp experiments. Are they really the same? In this WebQuest, you will decide.

The Quest(ion) / Task
Instead of looking at the Tuskegee Study and saying, "That was bad," if we are to really learn from the experience and avoid things like it in the future, we must be clear about what made the Tuskegee Study so tragic. To gain this understanding, you and a team of fellow students will look at several aspects of the Tuskegee Study and then turn your focus to other topics that have been compared to it. Your task is to thoroughly understand key issues involved in the Study, analyze articles that compare other tragedies to the Tuskegee Study, and, finally, write your critiques to the authors of the articles. To get very specific about it, in this WebQuest you will answer the question:

Is the Tuskegee Study unique or are
the same kind of tragedies happening all around us?

To help you answer this question, you'll do three main things:

  1. Read online articles about Tuskegee Study and a few other controversial topics.

  2. Analyze the similarities and differences between the other topics and the Tuskegee Study.

  3. Write an intelligent comment to the authors and send it via email.

The Process and Resources

In this WebQuest you will be working together with a group of students. As a member of the group you will explore Webpages from people all over the world who have contributed their knowledge. Because these are real Webpages we're tapping into, not things made just for schools, the reading level might challenge you. Feel free to use the Merriam-Webster WWWebster Dictionary or one in your classroom.

You'll begin with everyone in your group getting some background before dividing into roles where people on your team become experts on one part of the topic. Afterwards, each group will come back together to address the Quest(ion) / Task.

Background: Something for Everyone

Use the Internet sites linked below to answer the basic questions of who? what? where? when? why? and how? Be creative in exploring the information so that you answer these questions as fully and insightfully as you can.

Looking Deeper from Different Perspectives

  1. Individuals or pairs from your larger WebQuest team will explore one of the roles below.

  2. Read through the files linked to your role. If you print out the files, underline the passages that you feel are the most important. If you look at the files on the computer, copy sections you feel are important by dragging the mouse across the passage and copying / pasting it into a word processor or other writing software.

  3. Remember to write down or copy/paste the URL of the file you take the passage from so you can quickly go back to it if you need to prove your point.

  4. Be prepared to focus what you've learned into a clear point-by-point analysis of how the different tragedies compare to the Tuskegee Study.

Role One: Reporter

Your main task is to look at the Tuskegee Study from the viewpoint of a newspaper reporter. Most importantly, your team is relying on you to be an expert on the facts and details involved in the study. Use the Internet information linked below to answer these questions:

  1. What was the purpose of the study?

  2. What reason were the men given for the tests and treatment they received?

  3. What was the attitude of the men to the doctors?

  4. What important discovery took place that the doctors did not tell the men about?

  5. If you were writing the lead story on the Tuskegee Study, what would you focus on, what would be your angle?

Role Two: Scientist

Your main task is to look at the Tuskegee Study from the viewpoint of a scientist or researcher. It's your job to make sure your team understands the details of the disease and why and how research studies are conducted. Use the Internet information linked below to answer these questions:

  1. How exactly does syphilis get transmitted?

  2. How does syphilis affect the human body?

  3. What possible benefit could come to humankind by learning about untreated syphilis?

  4. What would you say is generally more important: the small number of people affected in a study or the knowledge that could be gained?

Role Three: Historian / Sociologist

Your main task is to look at the Tuskegee Study from the viewpoint of an historian or sociologist. Your team is relying on you to think about the big lessons learned, to consider the long-term effects, and to ponder the deeper ethical questions. Use the Internet information linked below to answer these questions related to the legacy and what lingers even after the Study's over and apologies are made.

  1. Who were the people who conducted the Tuskegee Study? What was their position in society and what motivated them?

  2. Who were the people who were subjects of the Study? What was their position in society and what motivated them?

  3. What are the main things that made the Study so wrong?

  4. If we are to learn from history, so that we don't make the same mistakes, what are the key aspects of the Tuskegee Study that we need to watch for in future experiments?

Coming to a Group Understanding
You have all learned a lot about the Tuskegee Study. Now it's time to put that knowledge to the test. Yes, it seems everyone agrees that the Tuskegee Study was a low point in U.S. history and a grave tragedy for all involved. Does this mean that all things that are bad are "just as bad" as the Tuskegee Study? The reason to ask this question is that it's become popular to compare other controversial issues to the Study as a way to convince people that other things are just as clearly wrong. Maybe they are and maybe they aren't. Follow the suggestions in this next section to avoid falling into any sloppy thinking.

Reading Online Articles

The articles linked below make direct comparisons between the Tuskegee Study and other important topics. The best idea is to have each member of your team choose a different topic. If you have too many teammates (or too few computers) to do this, you can work in pairs or small groups. Your first step is to read through the articles to get the main ideas.

Flooding Cocaine into Black Neighborhoods
U.S. Hypocritical When it Comes to Drugs
Frugal Squirrels: Homepage for Patriots, Survivalists and Gun Owners

Concentration Camp Experiments
Steps Still Being Taken To Undo Damage of "America's Nuremberg"
Howard Wolinsky (Send a letter to the editors of The Annals of Internal Medicine)

note: You can view images of High-Altitude medical experiments in Dachau or read descriptions of Medical Experiments of the Holocaust and Nazi Medicine to get a better idea of what's being discussed.

Gun Control
Mimsy Were the Borogoves: The Self Defense Tuskegee
Jerry Stratton, San Diego, California, May 21, 1997

We Can Overcome
from Massachusetts Citizens for Life

Conspiracy or Unnatural Disaster?
David Gilbert (care of Covert Action Quarterly)

Analyzing the Issues

Now that you have the basic idea behind at least one of the articles above, it's time to look very closely and compare and contrast the Tuskegee Study with the other topics. To help you analyze or critique the articles above, answer each of the following questions for the Tuskegee Study and the new topic being compared to it (you can recreate the table on a piece of paper). Finally, to see whether the two tragedies are in fact very similar, put a X in the last column when the situations are the same. In this way, if all aspects of the two tragedies are the same, X's will be running down the last column.

Key Questions Tuskegee Study Other Issue    X?   
Did the people on the receiving end know what was happening to them? The men were not informed.              
What was the relationship between those in power and the victims? The men were citizens of the government doing the study.              
Did race or minority status have an influence on who was chosen as victims? The men were chosen because they were Black.              
Was there a benefit to others that outweighed the cost to the victims? The U.S. Center for Disease Control says the reason for the Study was to "justify treatment programs for blacks" (see link?).              
Was there a conspiracy or did the bad things just happen without people planning them? The U.S. Public Health Service worked with the Tuskegee Institute, local draft boards and health departments among others (see a link?).              

Writing the Email Message

Use information, pictures, facts, opinions, etc. from the Webpages you explored to convince your teammates how the new topics in comparison are like or unlike the Tuskegee Study. Your WebQuest team should write out an analysis for each topic that everyone member of the team agrees with. Now's the time to put your learning into a letter you'll send out for real world feedback. Here's the process:

  1. Begin your letter with a statement of who you are and why you are writing.

  2. Give background information that shows you understand the issues involved in the Tuskegee Study.

  3. Present a point-by-point analysis or critique (you can use the table above) agreeing or disagreeing with the argument offered by the authors writing about the other controversial issues. Make sure to be specific in both the information (like where you got it from on the Web) and the reasoning (why the information proves your viewpoint).

  4. Have each person on the team proofread each message. Use correct letter format and make sure you have correctly addressed the email message (note: email links to the authors are with the above linked articles). Use the links on the Webpages to make contact. Please be polite and reasonable. You will only create enemies and give online learning a bad name if you flame. ALSO, if you know that you are one of many students emailing a particular author, please send only one message for your whole group or class. Let's be good netizens and not flood anyone's email in-box.

  5. Make sure your teacher gets a copy (a "cc"), then send your message.

By now it's clear to the world that the Tuskegee Study was a horrible event in the history of our country and the health care professions. It's also clear that other bad things are happening in the world. That things are in some way bad doesn't make all bad things equal. The point of this WebQuest was to help you look more closely at issues in the world, to see them in their complexity, not as simple questions of black and white, all good or all bad. In the years to come, as you cast your votes, the country will be better off if you look closely and critique the issues carefully. If we all do this, maybe we can prevent the bad and promote what's good. Remember, learning never stops.

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Originally created using:

created by Filamentality

Created January, 1996. Last revised February, 2005
Created by Tom March, tom at ozline dot com
Applications Design Team/Wired Learning