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Higher Education Modules

Life after Death: Dr. Charles Drew, Civil Rights, and the Legacy of Race

Class 5: Race, Memory and Health


Class five connects the legacy of Dr. Charles Drew within a much broader legacy of medical mistrust that includes the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, both of which are fundamentally important for any preliminary discussion of race and health in the 20th century. Importantly, both have been subject to memorial retellings and rumors almost impossible to refute because embedded in those retellings are experiential historical truths. This class will allow students to develop a better grasp of how Dr. Drew's narrative is critical for understanding not only the historical past, but also how the historical past plays a significant role in present day conversations of race and healthcare.


Jones, James H. Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. New York: The Free Press, 1981.

Reverby, Susan M. The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

___. Tuskegee's Truths: Rethinking the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000, pp. 15-34; 41-59; Part VI (Rethinking the Role of Nurse Rivers); pp. 424-443. Available online at

Discussion Questions

  1. How could the Tuskegee Syphilis Study continue for forty years without public outrage or officials within the Public Health Service discontinuing the study?
  2. One persistent myth of Tuskegee is that the men were given syphilis. The reality was these men already had syphilis and the study's purpose was to prevent them from receiving available treatment so scientists could see how the disease progressed in their bodies through autopsy. Why do you think the idea of the men being injected with syphilis has been so persistent?
  3. A legacy of Tuskegee rests on the historical distrust between minorities and poor people vis-à-vis the medical community. Provide 3 or 4 reasons why you think race and class might factor into communication barriers between patients and physicians today. What role, if any, should physicians play in helping bridge potential gaps of communication, taking into consideration how some patients re-live their own personal memories of mistreatment within spaces of healthcare?
  4. Dr. Drew's narrative speaks in part to contemporary questions of race and medical mistrust rooted in historical experiences like Tuskegee. Can you think of additional barriers that might prevent effective communication between patients and physicians today?
  5. Do you see initial similarities between the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and Dr. Drew's narrative in terms of race and memory?