NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Improving the lives of every community. That’s what Dr. Wendelyn Inman strives for at Tennessee State University as an infectious disease expert and director of the public health program.
“It’s so important for us to be where decisions are made that improve our lives,” she said. “The carrot on the stick with the Tuskegee study was these individuals believed that they were being offered healthcare — well, you know how critical a need healthcare is.”
Dr. Inman’s great uncle Augustus was among hundreds of black men who took that carrot in the Tuskegee study. According to the CDC, it started in 1932 when the U.S. Public Health Service worked with the Tuskegee Insitute to record the natural history of syphilis. The study initially involved 600 black men – 201 who did not have syphilis and 399 who did, including the man Dr. Inman called ‘Uncle Gus.’
“He was in the Tuskeegee study but he was given syphilis,” she said. “He lost his family, his wife left him, she thought that he had been unfaithful by having an STD. It went so long the extent of it was he was blind.”
It wasn’t until 1972 that an Associated Press story revealed the federal government had let hundreds of black men in rural Alabama go untreated for syphilis for 40 years for research purposes.
“As Uncle Gus got sick and couldn’t see, he came and lived with his brother, my great grandfather, and I remember him being led to the tree to sit under the tree in the summer and knowing that he didn’t have any kids and knowing that he…. excuse me,” recalled Dr. Inman as tears filled her eyes. “Knowing he needed his brother to help him live through the experience it was just… it was an experience for us as a family.”
It’s heartbreak Dr. Inman feels to this day and it’s led many in the Black community to distrust the COVID-19 vaccine. Despite her family’s experience, Dr. Inman isn’t one of them.
“I think it’s analogous to a person saying I’m only going to have a landline phone because I don’t understand the technology of a digital phone, of a cellular phone,” she said. “The safety measures are in place that didn’t exist when my Uncle Gus was in the Tuskegee study.”
She says more people of color are in positions of influence like the public health sector she’s in.
“In public health, the community is your patient. We have symptoms that we identify that we recommend a treatment for. They can accept or not accept just like the physician’s patient can. We have a community that needs healthy outcomes on all levels,” Dr. Inman said. “I knew I wanted to be in medicine but it wasn’t until I was a senior in college that I realized I wanted to do the Ph.D. route because of Uncle Gus and others, instead of the MD route.”
She says public health allows her to help entire communities, and her work at TSU educates a workforce to do the same.
“We are seeding a nation with individuals who can reach all sectors of the community, effectively and accurately with more positive outcomes,” she said.
The men in the Tuskegee study filed a lawsuit that resulted in a $9 million settlement, and former President Bill Clinton formally apologized years later.