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There's a place in Alabama called Tuskegee. 2 very different things happened here.

I was driving through the South with my family recently, and we happened through the town of Tuskegee, Alabama. Two things popped into my mind: The Tuskegee Airmen and some experiment with syphilis. Wait, what?! Somehow, my brain was not able to sort those two very different things out, so I had to do a bit of research. What I found was bittersweet because one story is so damned horrifying and the other so inspiring.

There's a place in Alabama called Tuskegee. 2 very different things happened here.


Two Tuskegee Experiments

Two distinctly different social experiments happened in Tuskegee during the last century. One was the World War II Tuskegee Airmen program — African-American fighter and bomber pilots, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks, and other support personnel for the pilots. The first of its kind, it made heroes of them in the eyes of many, including many African-Americans who at the time were largely prevented from even voting because of Jim Crow laws.

The second? A bizarre and terrifying result of people thinking that African-Americans were somehow “other" or “less than." Stretching a span of 40 years (from 1932 to 1972), it involved 600 African-American sharecroppers.


The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

The U.S Public Health Service began the study in 1932 with the help of the Tuskegee Institute, a local college. 600 poor, largely illiterate sharecroppers were enrolled in the program, and 399 of them already had syphilis. They were given free medical care, meals, and free burial insurance for being a part of the study. But while the people studying them knew they had syphilis, the men themselves did not; they knew it as “bad blood," which could be anything from chronic fatigue-like symptoms to anemia and syphilis. It was officially dubbed "The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male."

In 1947, medical researchers figured out that there was a simple cure for the disease: penicillin. However (and this is where things really went off the rails), those in charge of the study decided not to treat any of the patients, and prevented any of them from accessing other successful syphilis treatment programs in the area. This despite the fact that every major textbook at the time strongly advocated treating syphilis at any and all stages. If that had actually been the guidepost for the “research" team in charge of this study, it might have ended quickly. Instead, hundreds died painful deaths from the disease and infected spouses and children (through congenital syphilis).

Why did this study continue despite all of that? Very simple. At the time, there was a narrative among many in the white academic and medical communities about African-American people, and specifically men: that they were sexually promiscuous and reluctant to seek treatment.

Basically, the study assumed that black men would never seek treatment for the disease anyway, so it was much better to let it run its course and study them rather than offer offer a treatment like antibiotics that was widely available by the early 1950s and would have worked.

This continued throughout the 1950s and '60s. Ultimately, the study was terminated in 1972 when someone leaked it to the press. Since then, it's been known as “The Infamous Syphilis Study," and it led to rule changes for informing participants in scientific studies.

On the other end of the “Treating people like humans and equals" scale in Tuskegee was the Tuskegee Airmen.

The WWII Fighter and Bomber Squadrons

Before the Tuskegee Airmen, no African-American had been a U.S. military pilot. But in the two decades leading up to World War II, a number of groups and individuals, including the NAACP and labor union leader A. Philip Randolph pushed for legislation to fund training for African-American men to become pilots. It was successful. And though they had to work in segregated units, they formed the 99th Pursuit Squadron in 1941, later named the 332nd Fighter Group. A bomber squadron was added later, the 477th Bombardment Group. Some also served as support personnel for the units.

Because of enforced segregation, it was referred to as the Tuskegee Experiment. Pilots believed it was called an "experiment" because it was designed to fail. However, it did not.

(It's worth noting that the infamous syphilis experiment above is basically the entire first two pages of search results when you Google "Tuskegee Experiment," though that was officially referred to as a study, rather than an experiment.)

There were only 124 African-American pilots in the entire nation at the time this experiment began, so there was skepticism about getting enough pilots. Eventually, so many applied and met the stringent qualifications that over 996 airmen entered the service, as well as 10,000 support personnel. They were trained at Tuskegee Institute — ironically, the same school that was, at the same time, conducting the syphilis experiment.

Training had been going for just five months when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt decided to drop in on March 21, 1941, and have the chief instructor, an African-American named C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson, fly her around a bit. He had been a pilot since 1929 and had trained thousands of rookie pilots. The demo flight went very well, and it got the media talking.

As training progressed and the skills became more technical, in some cases integrating the white and black pilots was the only way to train them. Out of necessity, this began to break down the segregation that the experiment began with.

The Tuskegee Airmen's main job was to fly fighter planes to accompany bomber missions and keep enemy aircraft from shooting down the much larger, more cumbersome bombers that their white colleagues flew.

Missions and Numbers

The pilots did combat duty in Europe, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. In the end, the squadron was very well decorated:

  • 450 pilots served
  • 66 died in combat
  • 33 became prisoners of war
  • Flew over 700 bomber escort missions, and were the only fighter group to never lose an escorted bomber to enemy fighters
  • Destroyed 251 enemy aircraft
  • Won over 850 medals including:
    • Distinguished Flying Cross (150)
    • Bronze Star (14)
    • Air medals and clusters (744)
    • Distinguished Unit Citation (3)
    • Purple Heart (8)

The experiment dispelled a U.S. Army War College study of black troops from World War I, which concluded that black soldiers were "subservient," "mentally inferior," and "barely fit for combat."

The Tuskegee Airmen proved, to those who still doubted it, that African-Americans were every bit as capable as anybody else in getting the job done. And it gave young kids who grew up with very few choices the hope that they could aspire to greatness.

Here's a quick clip on one of the battles, as relived by a pilot who was there. If you want to see the entire 45-minute version, a link to it is below.

Now my mind is much clearer on what happened in Tuskegee. The next time we go through that part of the country, I think I'll explore some history in person.

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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