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David Feldshuh’s 1992 play Miss Evers’ Boys, later adapted for film by HBO, told the story of the U.S. Government’s secret 1932-1972 experiment in tracking untreated syphilis in rural African-American men under the guise of routine medical care. While the government, specifically, the U.S. Public Health Service, did not infect these poor, uneducated men with the fatal disease, it did deliberately fail to inform infected patients of their condition, and chose to track the progression of the disease rather than treat the sick. That the study was conducted over the course of 40 years, into the “modern” and presumably more enlightened era, and subjected over 100 men to lives of physical and mental – given the effects of syphilis on the brain – anguish, despite the knowledge that, as of 1940, penicillin was available to treat the infected men, remains one of the sadder episodes in American history.
The filmed adaptation of Miss Evers’ Boys was a critically well-received production, featuring first rate acting. Beyond an ethical violation – particularly for those physicians involved who had sworn an oath to heal the sick – the Tuskegee syphilis experiment amounted to a moral abomination that should have had no part in contemporary American history. Miss Evers’ Boys, told from the perspective of the African-American nurse assigned to help the victims through a painful and very protracted ordeal, depicts this moral outrage and the human suffering it involved with the sensitivity and intelligence the story warranted.
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