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Critic of Tuskegee Study, Irwin Schatz, M.D. (I ’61), Passes

Irwin Schatz, M.D. (I ’61), died on April 1, 2015. Dr. Schatz received the Mayo Clinic Distinguished Alumni Award in 2009.

Dr. Schatz was chair of the Department of Medicine, leader of the residency program at the University of Hawaii for more than two decades and a professor of medicine at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine in Honolulu.

Dr. Schatz’s research interests included orthostatic hypotension and cardiovascular risk factors. He published more than 100 articles on topics ranging from the need to train more generalists, changes in undergraduate medical education, and empathy and medical education. He endeavored to develop the research and support infrastructure for young investigators in Hawaii.

Dr. Schatz was a major contributor to the Honolulu Heart Program, a longitudinal study with decades of follow-up in Japanese-American men in Hawaii and a gold mine for investigators interested in human aging and cardiovascular disease. Among other key discoveries, this study has shown the major role that frailty plays in poor outcomes in older people.

Critic of Tuskegee Study

Dr. Schatz played a major role in questioning the ethics of The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphillis in the Negro Male conducted between 1932 and 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama, by the U.S. Public Health Service. The study became controversial and led to major changes in how patients are protected in clinical studies.

Dr. Schatz, then a 34-year-old cardiologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, read a paper about the study. The research troubled him, and he sent a letter to the author at the Centers for Disease Control. Dr. Schatz didn’t receive a reply, and the issue faded until a reporter came across the letter in the early 1970s. It appeared that Dr. Schatz was the only physician to complain about the study. A Wall Street Journal article precipitated media attention about informed consent. Dr. Schatz helped to shape the way research is conducted.

A New York Times’ obituary reported the content of Dr. Schatz’s letter to the study’s author:

I am utterly astounded by the fact that physicians would allow patients with potentially fatal disease to remain untreated when effective therapy is available. I assume you feel that the information which is extracted from observation of this untreated group is worth their sacrifice. If this is the case, then I suggest the United States Public Health Service and those physicians associated with it in this study need to re-evaluate their moral judgments in this regard.

According to The New York Times, Dr. Schatz said the following in 2013 about the Tuskegee study:

These researchers had deliberately withheld treatment for this group of poor, uneducated, black sharecroppers in order to document what eventually might happen to them. I became incensed. How could physicians, who were trained first and foremost to do no harm, deliberately withhold curative treatment so they could understand the natural history of syphilis?

Dr. Schatz was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba, Canada, in 1931. He received his undergraduate degree and medical degree from the University of Manitoba. He completed a residency  at Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, and a fellowship in cardiovascular disease at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Dr. Schatz is survived by his wife, Barbara, and sons Jacob, Edward, Stephen and Brian. Brian Schatz is a U.S. senator from Hawaii.

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