Black History

Bill Jenkins, Doctor Who Tried to Stop Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Dies

Dr. William “Bill” Jenkins, the legendary epidemiologist who worked for the U.S. government, died at age 73 on Feb. 17.

The cause of death was sarcoidosis, according to his wife, Dr. Diane Rowley.

The exceptional doctor had always been an advocate for racial and social equality among Black Americans. This yearning for justice began when he was in high school.

While he had many accomplishments over the course of his illustrious career, he was best known for trying to end the Tuskegee Experiment, an unethical study conducted on rural Black men in Macon, Ala., by the U.S. government, in order to learn the effects of syphilis on the human body. The study spanned some forty years and was conducted without informed consent from the participants. Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, caused brain damage, paralysis, blindness and even death in many of the men.

Jenkins became aware that the men were being deceived and had subsequently passed the disease to their wives, who then passed it on to their children.

Bill Jenkins

Tuskegee study participants in Davisville, Ala., in 1954. (National Archives)

When Jenkins told his superior about his concerns, his fears were blown off by his boss and he was told to “not worry about it.”

He then attempted to “expose” what was going on with the study, but he failed to highlight that Blacks were targeted in biased medical research studies. The story didn’t gain traction because Jenkins didn’t fully detail what happened. Ultimately, the last survivor of the Tuskegee Experiment died in 2004.

Dr. Jenkins proceeded to tackle racial bias in medicine in many other forms. He actively recruited people of color into the public health field. After the study, he went back to school and earned two master’s degrees, one in biostatistics and the other in public health. He lastly earned a doctorate in epidemiology in 1983.

He worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Jenkins became one of the first researchers to recognize the disproportionate manner AIDS affected Black men. Later, he became the CDC’s director of minority AIDS prevention. He was also the founder of the Society for the Analysis of African American Public Health Issues, which seeks to eliminate racial health disparities.

His last way to pay it forward with reference to the Tuskegee Experiment was overseeing the government’s Participants Health Benefits Program, which provides free lifetime medical care to the men and their families harmed by the experiment.

“What they deserve is the best medical care we can provide,” Jenkins told The Times in 1997. “I try to give them the care that I would want to give to my mother.”

He always felt deep down that he failed the men in that experiment and his life’s work was spent trying to make his race better for it by his medical contributions.

Jenkins is survived by his wife, Dr. Diane Rowley, and daughter, Danielle Rowley-Jenkins.

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