Health Blog

Recognizing the Legacy of Medical Racism – Black History in Medicine

Black History Month is about remembrance. Remembering can take many forms, and perhaps you have observed BHM through a variety of ways like reading Black authors or supporting Black-owned businesses. Our last blog was a celebration of Black history as we remembered and honored Black scientists and health care workers who have revolutionized the field of medicine, saving lives of all races. But it is always necessary to remember the difficult, painful parts of history, especially if we seek to transform the present. In order to change systems of institutional racism, we must understand how they were established and operated.

When thinking about medical racism, many people point to the Tuskegee syphilis study, an iconic display of racial injustice within the medical system. The story begins with a project proposal in 1932 with the initial goal of improving the health of Black communities in the Macon County, Alabama in order to build a stronger industrial workforce in the area. However, once they discovered extremely high rates of syphilis among the population the health system determined they did not have the funds to treat them, even though effective treatment was available. Instead, doctors and public health officials decided to observe how syphilis progressed untreated in Black bodies through a research study (2). Harriet Washington notes that the study doctors believed Black Alabamans to be “resistant to health measures, intellectually inferior, impetuous, degenerate, and, above all, at the mercy of frighteningly powerful sexual drives” (2). These prejudices justified the decision to save money by withholding treatment. Today, it is illegal to withhold treatment from patients even for research purposes.

The government-run research study recruited Black men – generally extremely impoverished sharecroppers – who had syphilis and told them they would be receiving free treatment. However, the study authorities lied to the participants and did not give them any treatment because their actual goal was to observe how syphilis slowly infects and kills Black bodies over the course of years. This decision violates the now-formal rule of informed consent: that participants in any research must be fully aware that they are a part of a research study, educated about the nature of the study, and aware of what they would undergo upon consenting. The requirement of informed consent was not put into law until the 1950s, but even after that the Tuskegee syphilis study continued to operate until a whistleblower in the 1970s forced the study to officially shut down (2).

Today, there are predictions of COVID-19 vaccination disparities by race (6). It is the goal of Cherry Health to ensure all our patients have the opportunity to receive the vaccine. The long-term effects of COVID-19 that persist even after a person recovers are still being researched but include chronic conditions like depression, cardiovascular issues and kidney damage (4). This vaccine is a step to preventing further health disparities. We at Cherry Health are ready to discuss your doubts and questions regarding the COVID-19 vaccine. Last December, Cherry Health participated in a community conversation with the Black Impact Collaborative where they discussed the vaccine’s development and “historical concerns about Black people and medical studies in America.” We encourage you to watch the discussion, which was broadcasted on Facebook live here (5).

As Cherry Health’s CEO, Tasha Blackmon says, we must “be honest about our own growth opportunities and become more intentional about our contribution to the healing, peace and unity so desperately needed in our communities (1).” This Black History Month we hope you will join us in recommitting to this journey!



By Christa Fernando, AmeriCorps Member