March 28 2012 12:00 AM

Professor Susan Reverby writes about medical research gone wrong


As a professor of gender studies and an expert on the history of medicine in the United States, Susan Reverby has made a name for herself by talking bluntly about topics that many would find tough to discuss.

Reverby, the Marion Butler McLean Professor in the History of Ideas and Professor of Women´s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College and an historian of American women, medicine and nursing, speaks April 5 at the Michigan State University’s World View Lecture Series.

She will explore “how we think about medical horror stories.” Her talk focuses on the notorious 1946 to 1948 Guatemala study of sex workers who were infected with sexually transmitted diseases and then allowed to have sex with prisoners and soldiers to test penicillin, and the 40-year-long Tuskegee Study of 600 African-American men with syphilis.

She has written two books on the Tuskegee case, 2000’s “Tuskegee Truths: Rethinking the Tuskegee Syphilis Study” and the 2009 follow-up, “Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and its Legacy.” She also has written a history of nursing, “Ordered to Care: The Dilemma of American Nursing.”

She said with the vast number of bio-ethical issues facing the United States (such as 85 percent of our drugs being tested overseas) it is important to not cloud the real issues. 

Reverby believes that when it comes to analyzing medical horror studies that we tend to believe “it couldn’t happen to us, or that it couldn’t happen here.”

“Even the best of us will do these types of things,” she said.

She said modern-day medical researchers see the Nazi experiments in Nuremberg — in which prisoners were subjected to medical experiments involving sterilization, malaria, freezing and genetic engineering — as the sort of thing done by “racist pigs or imperialist running dogs.”

She will tell the audience, “Not so quick — it could be you.” When it comes to medical research, she said, you have to “imagine you could make a mistake.”

Reverby also said that a lack of knowledge about the history of medicine helps to continue the spread of misinformation, which clouds the real issues.

Citing the Tuskegee Study as an example, she said most people today believe that the men being studied were injected with syphilis, which was not true. “The basis for the study was much worse,” she said.

Reverby said the men — mostly impoverished sharecroppers who had already contracted syphilis — were recruited under the guise of free health care, having been diagnosed as having “bad blood.” “If they had access to health care, they would never had been recruited,” she said.

Instead of being treated, they were only observed to understand the outcomes of the disease. Even after penicillin was determined to be an effective cure for syphilis, the subjects were not given treatments; as a result, many of the subjects and their wives died of the disease and many of their children were born with congenital syphilis.

She said researchers have a tendency to get caught up in unethical research and “passionately believe they did the right thing.”

“We have to know there are edges we can fall off of and that there are rules which keep us from our passions,” she said. “Researchers tend to get caught up in data.”

Susan Reverby

World View Lecture Series

7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 5

Pasant Theatre, Wharton Center

$20; free for Michigan State University students, staff and faculty