Bill Jenkins, the Black epidemiologist who tried to stop the notorious syphilis experiment at Tuskegee University, has died at the age of 73.
The cause was complications from sarcoidosis, his wife, Diane Rowley, told The New York Times in an obituary.
Jenkins was working in Washington as a statistician with the U.S. Public Health Service when he learned that the government was experimenting on hundreds of black men in Macon County, Ala., by allowing their syphilis to go untreated so the government could see what would happen.
The men were under the impression that their ailment — which they called “bad blood” — was being treated. But left untreated, syphilis can cause brain damage, blindness, paralysis and ultimately, death.
Some of the men died, while some of them passed the disease onto their wives, who then went on to infect their children.
When a colleague told Jenkins about the study, he did his homework and found out that not only was the experiment indeed taking place, but that it had been written about in medical journals and the American Medical Association condoned it.
Jenkins, troubled, went to his supervisor with what he’d learned and his supervisor told him not to worry about it. Jenkins later learned that his supervisor was one of those taking part in the study, the Times reported.
Jenkins later decided he would write about the study himself, and he sent his piece to other Black doctors and to a few journalists, according to the Times. Still, no one acted until later, another epidemiologist told the Associated Press what was happening and the news agency released a story. Shortly after, the government stopped the study.
Jenkins’ attempts to expose the Tuskegee experiment helped guide what would be his life’s work. He went on to fight what he saw as purposeful medical bias against people of color.
He was one of the first researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recognize just how dramatically AIDS was affecting Black men. He also oversaw a government program that provided free medical care for life to the men of the Tuskegee experiment and eligible family members, the Times reported.
Jenkins once told Rewired Radio that Tuskegee exposed how some in the medical research community viewed people of color.
“This study because the tip of the iceberg,” Jenkins said. “It became the example that people could use to show that there is racism in medical research.”