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Dr. Irwin Schatz was working as a cardiologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit when he came across a report in a medical journal that shocked him. The year was 1965, seven years before his son, the future Sen. Brian Schatz, was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Since 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service had been funding a study on what happens to African-Americans if they are not treated for syphilis. They were not treated even after drugs like penicillin were widely accessible.
Dr. Schatz wrote the researchers to complain, explained Susan Reverby, a historian at Wellesley College, who has written two books about the Tueskegee Study. “He reads the report, and says, ‘What they hell are you doing,’ basically.”
Dr. Schatz’s role in the Tueskegee study controversy has come up from time to time over the decades, most recently when the senator’s campaign made reference to the story in a Father’s Day email to supporters.
What effect does a father’s heroism have on a son who is running for the U.S. Senate? Civil Beat interviewed both Brian and Irwin Schatz to find out.
In 1972, an Associated Press story sparked enough public outrage to finally put an end to the 40-year-old study. A Freedom of Information Act request by The Wall Street Journal resulted in the discovery of Dr. Schatz’s letter that same year.
A note from one of the researchers that was attached to Schatz’s letter said that the doctor was the only one who had complained about the study’s ethics.
The researcher wrote that she did not intend to respond, and Dr. Schatz said he never got a reply.
Dr. Schatz recounted the story in an email to Civil Beat. “As was my wont, I was glancing through the Archives of Internal Medicine one evening and came across an article entitled, ‘The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis: 30 years of Observation,'” Dr. Schatz wrote. “I couldn’t believe what I had read. I had to reread it several times to make sure that I had not misinterpreted it.”
“But the message was unmistakable,” he wrote, “These researchers had deliberately withheld treatment for this group of poor, uneducated, black sharecroppers from Mississippi with late Syphilis in order to document what eventually might happen to them. I became incensed. How could physicians, who were trained first and foremost to do no harm, deliberately withhold curative treatment so they could understand the natural history of Syphilis?”
“I wrote the letter to the main author of the article, not knowing what else to do, to express my outrage, and question the morality of these investigators,” Dr. Schatz added.
In the original complaint letter, made available to Civil Beat by the Wellesley historian, Dr. Schatz wrote, “I am utterly astounded by the fact that physicians allow patients with (sic) potentially fatal disease to remain untreated when effective therapy is available. I assume you feel that the information which is extracted from observation of this untreated group is worth their sacrifice. If this is the case, then I suggest the United States Public Health Service and those physicians associated with it in this study need to re-evaluate their moral judgements in this regard.”
Dr. Schatz expressed surprised in the email interview with Civil Beat that he was the only one to protest. “It demonstrated to me that medical researchers’ sensibilities lagged behind those of the communities in which they worked.”
And indeed, Reverby said, the fact that Dr. Schatz had no recourse other than to write a letter illustrates how, at the time, there were no safeguards in place to question the ethics of engaging in tests on humans.
As a result of the controversy surrounding the study, however, Congress created a commission to come up with guidelines around human research. They also required researchers who use human subjects and receive federal funds to get the consent of their subjects. It also mandated that federally funded research using human subjects face a review board.
The doctor, when asked if the incident affected his children, wrote only, “I hope that it had some subsequent impact on their social conscience.”
Brian Schatz, meanwhile, has been reluctant to talk at length about Dr. Schatz’s role, partially because his father — who went on to serve as chair of the Department of Medicine and head of the residency program at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine — never made a big deal about his role.
“My father is a very humble man,” Schatz said in an interview with Civil Beat earlier this month. The younger Schatz doesn’t recall if he heard the story growing up over a family dinner or during a father-and-son bonding moment. Perhaps both.
“Whenever he told me the story, it wasn’t about him. He wasn’t the hero in the story. It was more to encourage the right set of values, the importance of living your life for a purpose. And he measures his success by how much of a positive impact he had,” Schatz said.
The senator said that it’s difficult to separate how the letter affected him from the other lessons he learned watching his father raise the family and work at the medical school. “He always taught me to work in the interests of the public good,” Schatz said. “I try my best to do that, but that’s not to say I’m going to succeed always, all the time.”