Numerous polls have shown that Black Americans are more reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccines than any other ethnic group in the United States.
An Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll from early February says that Black Americans are less likely to say that they have received the shot or will receive it in the future than white Americans, 57% compared to 68%. According to an August/September poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Undefeated, 70% of Black Americans believe that the medical industry discriminates against people based on race and ethnicity. These polls are concerning considering that Black Americans are three times more likely than whites to need hospitalization after contracting the virus, and almost twice as likely to die from the disease. To achieve herd immunity in the United States, 75% to 85% of the total population will need to be vaccinated.
Sadly, the low poll numbers make complete sense. The United States has a shocking and tragic history of performing dangerous medical experiments on Black populations. This history is not taught at most schools, and it almost seems too evil to be true.
Books such as “Medical Apartheid” by Hariet A. Washington, “Bad Blood” by James H. Jones, and “Caste” by Isabelle Wilkerson are great resources for educating oneself on this long, dark chapter in American history. Information from these three books will be cited throughout this article. These crimes are not just past episodes. The repercussions from these experiments are strongly felt today during the ongoing pandemic and vaccine rollout.
Many people wrongly assume that Black Americans have always been trepidatious towards medical systems. Enslaved Africans discovered and tested plants in the New World that cured ailments affecting blacks and whites alike. They introduced medicines, such as the stimulant kola nut, the main ingredient in Coca-Cola, to America. In 1721, during a smallpox epidemic in Boston, an enslaved African man named Onesimus gave his master, the minister Cotton Mather, the idea to inject people with a mild form of cowpox to provide immunity for smallpox. As a child in Africa, this was done to him and it seemingly protected him from the deadly disease. Mather listened to his slave, and after much public debate and experimentation, the smallpox inoculation was adopted by the Bostonians. It is considered to be the first great medical advancement of the New World. However, after centuries of medical abuses committed against enslaved Black, prisoners and citizens, many Black Americans are rightfully wary of the medical field, more so than other ethnicities that did not experience similar widespread trauma in the U.S.
In the Antebellum South, physicians often tested new vaccines and experimental medical techniques on enslaved Africans. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson tested the smallpox vaccine on 200 of his slaves at Monticello before administering it to his family. During a typhoid fever epidemic in 1832, Dr. Robert Jennings tested the smallpox vaccine on 30 enslaved Virginians and freedmen.
In 1846, Walter F. Jones of Petersberg, Virginia dumped boiling water on naked enslaved men repeatedly for several hours for typhoid pneumonia tests. Also in 1846, John M.B. Harden of Liberty County, Georgia published an article in the Southern Medical and Surgical Journal describing how he stripped blood vessels from the limbs of a “Negro” and “three hogs” to determine the relative areas of the branches of arteries.
The grotesque experiments conducted by J. Marion Sims are not as well known as they should be by Americans. Sims has been hailed as “the father of modern gynecology.” However, his serious medical breakthroughs are discredited by the painful, often fatal, tests he performed on Black infants and Black women in Alabama in the mid-1800s. Sims erroneously believed that neonatal tetanus was caused by skull movement, and that Black infants’ skulls grew quicker than White infants’ skulls. This left less time for the development of the brain and caused tetanus, which was a common ailment for enslaved Africans on the plantation. Sims stole Black infants away from their crying mothers for his tetanus tests. He made incisions in their skulls with a cobbler’s tool and tried prying the skull bones into alignment. All of the infants he used died. He did not take personal blame for this. Sims cited “the sloth and ignorance of their mothers and the black midwives who attended them,” as the cause for death. Modern science knows that tetanus was rampant in enslaved Africans in the South due to the unsanitary, filthy conditions where they were forced to work and live.
Sims performed equally demented experiments on Black women. Vesicovaginal fistula was a common complication for pregnant women in the 1800s, where the woman’s vagina and cervix collapsed and blocked blood flow. Women would often become disabled from this complication. Sims was given twelve enslaved women from their masters for his tests, which he performed from 1845 to 1849. The surgeries were extremely invasive and painful. The women were forced to kneel on their hands and knees as physicians took turns inserting a speculum into their vaginas. They had to be held down by the doctors. A enslaved African named Anarcha, only 17-years-old, was experimented on thirty times. One woman, Lucy, nearly died from sepsis. Sims described her agony in his memoirs as “supreme.” Many of the doctors quit after a year of experiments, saying they could no longer bear “the bone-chilling shrieks and lack of progress.” The women were not given anesthesia, even though it was available and commonly used on patients at hospitals. Sims believed that Black women did not experience the same pain as white patients, and therefore it wasn’t necessary. Later in his career, when he performed tests on white women in New York City, the women were given anesthesia. After five years of constant experiments, he perfected his technique and became the first to successfully repair a fistula.
Sims was not criticized for the infant deaths or his brutal experiments on Black women at the time because the use of enslaved people for medical experiments was unremarkable for the period. In 1809, Dr. Ephraim McDowell was the first to perform an ovariotomy, or surgery to remove the ovaries, in medical history. He used four of his enslaved Africans for experiments.
Between 1822 and 1831, Dr. Francois Marie Prevost used 29 enslaved Black women to perfect the Cesarean section technique. It is improbable that Sims would have become the father of gynecology if it was not for his use of those enslaved.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study has become more recognized this past year more than ever before, but is still not as widely known as it needs to be. Between 1932 and 1972, the United States Public Health Service and Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) allowed syphilis to go untreated in 399 Black sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama near the Tuskegee Institute. The goal of the experiment was to see how untreated syphilis affected the health of Black men. The sharecroppers were told that they would receive free healthcare for their “bad blood” in exchange for their participation in the study. They were also told that the tests would only take six months. Needless to say, they were not given free health care, and the tests lasted 40 years. Even after a cure for syphilis, penicillin, was widely used by 1947, the men were left untreated. When several of the men enlisted to fight in World War II, the U.S. Public Health Service told the army to not treat their syphilis.
After the global acceptance of the Nuremberg Code and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Declaration of Helsinki, which attempted to abolish dangerous human experimentation, the CDC continued the Tuskegee Study for two more decades. Exactly 40 wives and 19 children contracted the disease through the men and 128 of the sharecroppers died from syphilis. The study only became known to the public through a press leak in 1972, when the whistleblower Peter Buxton disclosed information about the study to The New York Times. Only 74 of the test subjects were still alive.
From 1951 to 1974, The Holmesburg Prison Complex in Philadelphia performed lucrative experiments on thousands of Black male prisoners for dozens of pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Merck and DuPont. Dow Chemicals paid the prison to test dioxin, a suspected carcinogen found in Agent Orange, on seventy prisoners, most of them Black. Many of the prisoners developed lupus and psychological damage. The chemical tests left the prisoners’ skin “flayed, discolored, and scarred.” Inmates were also inoculated with herpes, vaccina, wart viruses, malaria, syphilis, gonorrhea and dysentery, in which they received several hundred dollars. In 1952, Chester Southam of the Sloan Kettering Institute injected 396 prisoners at Ohio State Prison with live human cancer cells. Half of them were black. The National Institute of Health sponsored the research, which also sponsored the Tuskegee Experiments.
When I first learned about tests such as Sims’ experiments on Black infants and women, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the Holmesburg Program, I was ashamed that it took me so long to know about them. Not a word about any of these tests were taught in school. That needs to change. This disturbing history explains why Black Americans are polling lower than other ethnic groups in trust for the current vaccines. Some of the same institutes and companies involved with the COVID-19 vaccines, such as the CDC, National Institute of Health, Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Pfizer, were the ones performing these unethical experiments on Black people. The reluctance in many Black Americans to become vaccinated now is justified given this history of systemic racism in the medical field.