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Bill Jenkins (1945–2019), tried to end Tuskegee syphilis experiment

AP Photo / Alan Mothner

Whistleblower worked to expose the study as racist and unethical

Bill Jenkins was an epidemiologist and government whistleblower who tried to bring an end to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment by exposing it as racist and unethical. The study began in 1932 when 600 black men, 399 of whom had syphilis, were recruited for a study in exchange for free health care. The study quietly continued for four decades, during which time the men were denied emerging treatments for syphilis and allowed to pass the disease along to their wives and children. When Jenkins joined the Public Health Service in 1967, he learned about the still-ongoing experiment and began working to bring it to the public's attention so it could be stopped. After others got involved in whistleblowing the study's poor methods, a governmental hearing deemed the study problematic and it came to an end in 1972. A subsequent lawsuit brought monetary compensation to the remaining subjects and their survivors, and years later, Jenkins led the effort to get an official apology from President Bill Clinton to the victims of the experiment and their families.

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Died: February 17, 2019 (Who else died on February 17?)

Details of death: Died in Charleston, South Carolina of complications of sarcoidosis at the age of 73.

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Dedicated to reducing racial inequality in public health: Jenkins knew medical research was biased against the black community — the Tuskegee experiment was just one example of this longstanding bias. He spent his career working to correct this imbalance. At the Public Health Service and later at the Centers for Disease Control, he worked to recruit more people of color into public health professions, and he led research on AIDS prevention for the black community. He founded the Master of Public Health Program at Morehouse School of Medicine, opening the door for more minority students to pursue careers in public health.

Jenkins on racial bias in public health: “There's a tendency to believe that African Americans are reluctant to participate in research because of this one study and I think that belittles the concerns of African Americans. They are concerned about public health research because they're alienated from American society in any number of ways, and this study is the bellwether. It's much bigger than just this study and we're going to have to do a lot more work than just apologize for this.”

What people said about him: “The government was at the epicenter of the Tuskegee study, and Bill Jenkins had the courage to bring forth his ethical concerns while he was still a government employee. He spoke truth to power.” —Dr. Rueben Warren, director of the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care at Tuskegee University

“Dr. Bill Jenkins is a public health hero! I am one of the many who Bill introduced to public health and biostatistics, who benefitted from his sage guidance and mentoring, and who will forever be inspired by his example. Dr. Jenkins, your impact continues… Forever grateful!” —Dr. F. DuBois Bowman, Dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health

Full obituary: Washington Post

Related lives:

  • Moses Hayes (1921–2016), epidemiologist helped establish racial integration policies at Johns Hopkins University
  • Joseph L. White (1932–2017), "father of black psychology"
  • Olivia Hooker (1915–2018), first black woman in U.S. Coast Guard went on to research intellectual and developmental disabilities