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Marcella Alsan wins Arrow Award for research on medical legacy of Tuskegee Study

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Photo credit: 
The CDC

Marcella Alsan and Marianne Wanamaker are recipients of this year’s prestigious Arrow Award from the International Health Economics Association for research that shows the health of African-American men was adversely impacted by the Tuskegee syphilis study of the early 20th century.

The annual award recognizes excellence in the field of health economics and is named after the late Kenneth J. Arrow, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and mathematician. He was a Stanford Health Policy fellow and senior fellow by courtesy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI). He was also a senior fellow, emeritus, at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR).

The IHEA awarded the 27th annual Arrow Award to Alsan, a core faculty member at Stanford Health Policy, a senior fellow at FSI and SIEPR, and co-author Wanamaker of the University of Tennessee for their paper, “Tuskegee and the Health of Black Men” published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

The infamous Tuskegee study began in 1932 when the U.S. Public Health Service began following approximately 600 African-American men, some of whom had syphilis, for the stated purpose of understanding the natural history of the disease. The government willingly withheld treatment even after penicillin became an established magic bullet for treating the illness. 

The medical doctors and staff of the CDC followed the men for four decades, until ultimately the study was halted in 1972 when it was brought to the attention of the media by law student Peter Buxtun.

As noted in this story about the research, Alsan and Wanamaker found that the public disclosure of the study in 1972 was associated with an increase in medical mistrust and mortality among African-American men in the immediate aftermath of the revelation.

“The award is an immense honor for both Marianne and me. First, it sheds light on the importance of history for understanding health disparities. Second, it reaffirms the “expected behavior of the physician” that Professor Arrow eloquently described in his seminal 1963 paper on the distinctive features of the market for medical care and the externalities associated with deviating from those expectations.”

African-American men today have the worst health outcomes of all major ethnic, racial and demographic groups in the United States. Life expectancy for black men at age 45 is three years less than their white male peers, and five years less than for black women.

When their working paper was first published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, it became part of the national discussion about the lasting impact of the Tuskegee study.

“The story that Alsan and Wanamaker uncovered is even deeper than the direct effects of the Tuskegee Study,” wrote Vann R. Newkirk II in The Atlantic. “Their research helps validate the anecdotal experiences of physicians, historians, and public health workers in black communities and gives new power to them.”