The Tuskegee Syphilis Study went on from 1932 to 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Doctors working for the United States government sought to study the pathology of syphilis and used Black men in Alabama as their subjects. The doctors promised the men free medical care as well as food and funerary costs in exchange for their participation. However, the doctors exploited the men and did not give them the treatment they were promised. Our class defines dystopia as a system founded on oppression that benefits the oppressor. Through this formulation, several historical phenomena can be defined as dystopian. In light of our class discourse on dystopias, I would argue that this experiment is glaringly dystopian.
This study exemplifies dystopia as we have defined it in class because it is built on a foundation of oppression. Even if one disregards the implications of the test subjects being Black men and disregards marginalization as a factor, the doctors very clearly exploited their patients. As Iris Young asserts in “Five Faces of Oppression,” the workers “suffer material deprivation and a loss of control, and hence are deprived of important elements” (Young 46). As doctors did not inform their subjects about everything they were doing in their experiments, they robbed the patients of their autonomy and of their chance at improved health. For example, the doctors conducted excessive spinal taps on the men of the experiment, but they did not tell the patients why it was actually necessary. The doctors dehumanized the Black men they were supposed to be helping and significantly eroded the credibility of doctors for Black people.
The Tuskegee Study also demonstrates an element that is fairly prevalent in dystopian literature – commodification and concealment of knowledge. In 1984, Winston’s job was to “rectify” historical documents by changing them to reflect the whims of the Inner Party. In this way, people would never be able to think of existing outside of the parameters created by the Party. By limiting their imaginations, the Inner Party can more easily control their citizens. In a similar way, the doctors concealed medical knowledge from their patients. As mentioned earlier, the doctors took unnecessary spinal tap samples. That was not the most unethical thing they did; they continued the study even after penicillin was proven to cure syphilis. They also did not tell the men that the treatment option was available. They continued the experiment concealing the knowledge from them for the sake of scientific discovery. This concealment of knowledge allowed the doctors to control their patients and keep them from getting better. Because of this ethical nightmare, scientists are now required to receive informed consent from their patients. This diminished quality of life as a result of oppressors is distinctively dystopian.