President Clinton’s embattled nominee for surgeon general faced a new problem Friday evening: A conservative group charged that he may have condoned a government experiment in which more than 400 black men were denied treatment for syphilis.
The sensational allegation was immediately rejected by the White House, which had been quietly investigating rumors linking its nominee, Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr., with the notorious 40-year experiment.
And Foster, in a statement released by the White House, categorically denied that he went along with or even knew about the secret syphilis experiments before they were made public in 1972 and subsequently halted.
Nevertheless, the chairwoman of the Senate committee considering Foster’s nomination said she had ordered her staff to examine the charges.
“This experiment was one of the most tragic episodes in the history of the Public Health Service. I have instructed my staff to begin investigating these reports to determine what role, if any, Dr. Foster played in this experiment,” said Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan.
At issue is whether Foster, while vice president of the local medical society in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1969, was informed by government officials of the secret syphilis experiments - and sanctioned them.
A 1981 book written about the experiments states that the local medical society quietly went along with the syphilis experiments after being solicited for support by federal officials. The book, however, does not explicitly say Foster was involved.
Dr. Howard Settler, an officer of the Macon County Medical Society at the time, said the medical society never sanctioned the experiments - and, in fact, was essentially kept in the dark about them.