Susan Reverby wins Ralph Waldo Emerson Award
Published: Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 13:11
"I just didn't expect it," said Professor Susan Reverby of the Women's and Gender Studies department, who is to be awarded the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for her 2009 book "Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy." While still immersed in the turmoil surrounding her more recent study on U.S. syphilis experiments in Guatemala, Reverby received the news that she was recently named one of the three winners of the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society's 2010 Book Award.
This annual award includes a $10,000 monetary gift. The awards ceremony will take place in Washington, D.C in December.
"Examining Tuskegee" illuminates the facts and myths regarding the research project by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) in Tuskegee, Ala., which lasted from 1932 through 1972.
The conductors of the infamous "Tuskegee syphilis experiment" sought to obtain information on the then-incurable sexually transmitted disease with the hopes of developing reliable treatments and possibly a cure.
For 40 years, hundreds of impoverished African-American men living in rural communities with late-stage syphilis were the subjects of ethically questionable experiments. The men did not give informed consent to participate in the study. Furthermore, their lack of understanding about the disease resulted in the infection of sexual partners and the congenital infection of children.
The shameful legacy of those experiments has not been forgotten. "Nearly forty years after the study ended, the name ‘Tuskegee' evokes fears of the dangers of government involvement in medical fervor," Reverby wrote in a 2009 article published in The Huffington Post. Taking advantage of recently opened medical records as well as studying hundreds of documents and conducting scores of interviews, Reverby unearthed findings on the Tuskegee syphilis studies. Her findings contributed to the official U.S. apology issued by former president Bill Clinton in a White House ceremony last year.
The honor society presents three Book Awards each December for outstanding scholarly works published in the U.S. Awards are intended to support the general mission of the Society: to advocate for excellence in the liberal arts and sciences and to promote dialogue about important issues and ideas of our time in an environment of intellectual fellowship.
Reverby, whose father was a member of the Society, admitted being exceptionally touched by the award, which has a long history of notable winners.
"This Award puts Susan Reverby's ‘Examining Tuskegee' right up there with John Rawls's ‘A Theory of Justice,'" said Corrine Taylor, president of Wellesley College's Phi Beta Kappa Chapter. "A Theory of Justice," the groundbreaking 1972 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award winner, developed two internationally famous theories of justice.
"Examining Tuskegee" seeks to reaffirm the importance of medical ethics and informed consent. Unlike previous studies on Tuskegee, Reverby's "Examining Tuskegee" highlights the usual black-and-white tale of ethics and deception by documenting the personal stories of surviving victims.
"I was terrified that I wouldn't understand the heavy southern accent and I was more worried that they wouldn't understand my New York accent," Reverby said of her first interactions with former Tuskegee subjects. She traveled to Macon County, Ala. to interview the men directly.
Reverby was not solely concerned with making her findings on Tuskegee known to the government. She spoke to the families of the victims to help them understand the injustice of the syphilis study.
"The scariest thing was speaking at a Southern Baptist church," she recalled. It was in that Baptist Church that she discussed the syphilis study before an audience of approximately one hundred individuals in Notasulga, Ala., just outside of Tuskegee. "About a quarter were family members of the study," Reverby recalled. She had to face down the community's suspicious comments: "‘Why should we believe you? Are you here just to use us one more time?'"
To acknowledge Reverby's efforts in documenting and publishing details on the Tuskegee experiments, Macon County declared a "Susan Reverby Day." "This was a high point in my intellectual career," said Reverby, who was overwhelmed by the response of Macon County and the warmth extended to her.
Although Reverby acknowledged the personal importance of the reaction to her efforts from the local communities, she is even more appreciative of the impact she has had on the academic community. Her work has had a lasting impact on more than twenty historians, a fact that is deeply meaningful to her.