Susan Reverby

Susan M. Reverby
Marion Butler McLean Professor Emerita in the History of Ideas; Professor Emerita of Women’s and Gender Studies

Historian of American health care, women, race, and public health with a focus is on equality and ethics.

As a historian of American health care, my major research has been on women’s health, women as health workers/professionals, and the ethics of public health and research. In recent years I completed a long commitment to writing about what is often called the infamous “Tuskegee” syphilis study, the four decades long (1932-72) U.S. Public Health Service research study in which African American men were deceived into believing they were being treated, not monitored, for their disease. I edited a book on this study called Tuskegee’s Truths: Rethinking the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (2000) and my written book on the study, Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy , appeared in 2009, winning three major academic awards. I was also part of the Legacy Committee that led to President Clinton offering a federal apology for this study in 1997.

As part of the research on the syphilis study, I found unpublished papers about a Public Health Service study (1946-48) in Guatemala that involved infecting men and women in a prison, army barracks and a mental hospital with sexually transmitted diseases, but then also offering to cure most of them. I shared the then unpublished paper on this with a former director of the Centers for Disease Control in 2010. The gruesome details of the study caused much alarm and concern. The result was that my work was used as the basis for the U.S. government’s apology by the Secretaries of State and Health and Human Services to the people of Guatemala, a focus on the study by the President’s Bioethical Issues Commission, and the reassessment of the protections we give to subjects, especially in studies that take place outside the U.S. borders. The study and apology garnered enormous media attention and sent me on a lecture tour on and off for two years.

My current research is for a biography of Alan Berkman (1945-2009), a global health physician who fought to get anti-retrovirals for HIV/AIDs into Global South countries in the early 2000s and helped to shape U.S. policy. He trained a generation of global health activists while teaching at Columbia’s public health school and was mourned worldwide when he passed away in 2009. However, he was also only the second physician in U.S. history to be arrested for accessory to murder after the fact (the first being the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth after the Lincoln’s assassination) for not reporting treating the gunshot wound on a self-proclaimed revolutionary who was part of a mostly woman led anti-imperialist group. Berkman was deeply involved in anti-racism work, ended up doing seven years of very hard time while surviving several bouts of cancer that almost killed him, and was convicted of robbery and bombing. He considered himself a political prisoner. His journey from small town Eagle Scout to revolutionary doctor to global health activist is the subject of my book project.

As Wellesley’s first faculty hire in Women’s Studies in 1982, I have worked with my colleagues to build a fine department in this subject here at Wellesley. I teach both the introductory course every year and a survey on American women’s history since 1945. I also teach on the history of American medicine and public health, a seminar on women, history, and the use of memory, and a course one women’s political activism.

I continue to try to find ways to share my scholarship and perceptions with the public. I have written op eds, been interviewed by the media on numerous women’s and health research issues, and speak often on radio and TV programs. I served on the board of directors of the ACLU of Massachusetts for more than a decade. I am now the President of the board of the Wellfleet Nonresident Taxpayers Association on Cape Cod, an organization I helped to start.

I am fascinated by nature photography, especially mushrooms on Cape Cod in September (how specialized is that!). I have been in Wellesley’s drum troupe with students and also performed in the 2002 version of The Vagina Monologues.