In The Know Zone

Syphilis History

History of Syphilis


Syphilis has been around since early history. The first large outbreak of syphilis happened in Europe in 15th century. At this time, many people in all European countries were infected. Children were also being born with the disease. Adults with syphilis were taken outside of cities and banned.

  • 1890-Doctors studied and began understanding the disease. Control of the disease focused on prostitutes. Syphilis was associated with sin and sex outside of marriage.
  • 1905-German researchers discovered the bacteria that causes syphilis.
  • 1906-Another team of German researchers developed the Wassermann test, which is the main test used today to test for syphilis.
  • 1932-The Tuskeegee study to determine the development of syphilis among African American men began in Macon County, Alabama.
  • 1943-Use of penicillin to treat syphilis began. Tuskegee study participants were excluded from treatment.
  • 1947-Second large syphilis epidemic. A total of 106,000 cases were recorded in the U.S.
    Penicillin was used to control the disease.
  • 1948-Large public health campaign using media to increase awareness and control the disease, because the use of penicillin was not enough for the large number of people affected.
  • 1956-Numbers of cases dropped.
  • 1960s-Increase again in numbers of syphilis due to the sexual revolution.
  • 1970s-Large number of syphilis cases recorded among men who have sex with men.
  • 1972-End of Tuskegee syphilis study.
  • 1980s-Syphilis increased among inner city minority groups.
  • 1997-President Clinton apologizes to men and families of the Tuskegee syphilis study.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

In 1932 the United States Public Health Service began a study among 412 poor African American men diagnosed with syphilis in Macon County, Alabama. Thinking that the disease developed differently among African American men, researchers set out to follow the natural course of the disease without offering treatment to the men.

To recruit men into the study, the community was told that the men would receive treatment, free hot meals, the promise of free medical care, a certificate signed by the Surgeon General, and a $50 dollar burial stipend. These offers meant a lot to the men who were very poor and uneducated.

The only medication the men received was aspirin. Spinal tabs (lumbar punctures) were done on the men to test their fluids in their spinal cord area. This is a very painful procedure. Men were told that this was part of the treatment. By 1943, penicillin was widely used to treat syphilis, except among the men in the Tuskegee study.

The study stopped in 1972, when a previous study staff blew the whistle. By this time, many men in the study had died due to syphilis. Also, many of their children were born with the disease. Congressional subcommittee meetings took place in 1973. In 1974, the United States government paid $10 million dollars in an out of court settlement.

Acknowledging that this is a sad chapter in the history of U.S. health research, on May 16, 1997, President William Clinton officially apologized in behalf of the U.S. government to the surviving men and family members of the Tuskegee study.

In The Know: STI Pamphlet/ DVD Package
In the Know: STI Pamphlet Package