Courageous Convictions

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In 1964, Dr. Irwin Schatz, was a new cardiologist who had completed medical school just a few years prior. He read the December   issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine and was outraged.

An article that described a syphilis experiment on uneducated African American men who lived in Tuskegee, Alabama was so startling he said, “I couldn’t believe what I had read… but the message was unmistakable.”

Researchers in the Tuskegee Clinical Study deliberately withheld treatment for a group of poor, Black sharecroppers. Of the 600 men enrolled in the study about two-thirds had already contracted syphilis. Although penicillin was known as a proven treatment for the disease, uninformed participants were told they had “bad blood” and the antibiotic was withheld. Those conducting the study aimed to observe the evolution of the disease in untreated human subjects.

For Schatz, this raised huge concerns about the denial of treatment, racial discrimination and morality. He wondered how doctors trained not to harm others could intentionally deny care. Dr. Schatz wrote a short, strong letter to the study’s author. He directly challenged the moral judgment of the Public Health Service and doctors associated with the effort.

At the time, Schatz was a young professional criticizing an investigation overseen by leading figures in America’s public health system. In 2009, he was honored for actions that were, “to say the very least, potentially harmful to his career.”

The Tuskegee Study is well known, now, as one of the first U.S. examples of flagrantly unethical and unacceptable human research. It was conducted over a period of 40 years and mirrored the medical experiment atrocities by Nazis during WW II. In the 1970s, Schatz’s letter was discovered. An investigation by the New York Times found the letter was received, shared with senior management, and its merit promptly dismissed.  His brief communication framed a vital national debate over patient’s rights and standards for human subjects. It also exposed the deeply destructive implications of racism.

“His style was that you just do the right thing and move on, then you do the right thing again and just move on,” said his son.

Dr. Schatz, 83, died a few weeks ago. His legacy offers us a great example: leadership requires courageous action grounded in clear convictions.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed.D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillips Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See: www.pwkinc.com

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