Eunice Rivers Laurie
Eunice Verdell Rivers Laurie
|Born||November 12, 1899|
|Died||August 28, 1986(aged 86)|
|Other names||Eunice Rivers|
|Known for||Medical study coordinator|
Eunice Verdell Rivers Laurie (1899–1986) was an African American nurse who worked in the state of Alabama. She is best known for her work as the coordinator of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment from 1932 to 1972. The Tuskegee Experiment was a inhumane study that deliberately allowed black men to develop a painful disease when there was a cure.
Early life and education
Born into a farming family in rural Georgia in 1899, Eunice Verdell Rivers was the oldest of three daughters. She was born at a time and place in which race relations in the United States were at their lowest point. Originating from a poor, working-class family, Rivers was fortunate that education allowed her access to middle-class life. Her mother, who died when Rivers was just 15 years old, encouraged her to attend school since a young age. She told Rivers to “get a good education, so [she] wouldn’t have to work in the fields so hard.” Her father, also a proponent of education, encouraged her to become a nurse. He wanted all three of his daughters to have adequate schooling, working long hours at the sawmill to help finance their studies.
Rivers followed her father’s advice. She attended Tuskegee Institute's School of Nursing and graduated in 1922. Established in 1881 by Booker T. Washington, the Tuskegee Institute was a leading black educational institution in Alabama. After graduating from the Tuskegee School of Nursing, Rivers worked in the public health sector from 1923 until well after her retirement in 1965.
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Beginning in January 1923, Rivers worked for the Tuskegee Institute Movable School, which "provided adult education programs in agriculture, home economics, and health." As a result of this traveling work, she became a trusted health authority for African-American farming families in the area around Tuskegee, Alabama. As part of the school, she provided various public health services to African-American men and women in rural Alabama. She supplied adult education programs in agriculture, home economics, and health. She also helped spread health education messages, such as improvements in sanitation, ventilation, and cleanliness, to rural women. She informed the public, especially women, about specific diseases, including malaria and typhoid fever. She taught them how to make bandages from old clothes, care for sickly patients, and take temperatures. For the children, she gave dental hygiene lectures and supplied tubes of Colgate toothpaste donated by the company. Further, her public health work with men concentrated on social hygiene. She informed them about the dangers of venereal disease.
In her work with the Movable School, Rivers was technically an employee of the Alabama Bureau of Child Welfare. Beginning in 1926, the state transferred her to working with the Bureau of Vital Statistics, where her projects included improving birth and death registration; regulating and training midwives; and reducing infant mortality. She was instrumental in creating a system that tracked the number of births and deaths in the state of Alabama. She also helped to regulate the lay midwifery and lower infant mortality rates. As an aside, she continued to work with the Movable School, traveling around Alabama but this time focusing on pregnant women and midwives. While at the Movable School, she was constantly integrated in the community, visiting patients throughout the states’ counties. In her first year, she visited over 20 counties and was noted for tending to 1,100 people during a particularly busy month.
This work also involved substantial amounts of travel to interact with African Americans in rural Alabama.
Impact on race relations
Rivers lived and worked her entire adult life in Alabama. This was a state in which race was a dominant factor of southern society. As an African-American in the deep South during Jim Crow, she was expected to accept demands by all whites, especially her supervising physicians. However, her life paints a picture of defiance against segration. She became one of the first African-Americans to be employed by the United States Public Health System (PHS), thus paving the way for other people of color in this area of service. Rivers started working at the PHS during a time in which the U.S. was in the worst economic depression in its history.
Her life’s work was an example of greater opportunities for African-Americans, especially in the South. Her work ethic, care for patients, and exceptional nursing abilities earned her the respect of her white supervisors and other health professionals. During an era when she was expected to follow orders without questioning, she had countless letters of support praising her professional capability and excellent interpersonal skills. As an African-American nurse who played a critical role in scientific experiments and patient care, nurse Rivers helped expand the impact of these groups of people in medicine. Rivers even published an article in a respected journal about her role in the Tuskegee syphilis study. Later, she became the third annual recipient of the Oveta Culp Hobby Award, the highest award the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare could grant an employee.
Tuskegee syphilis study
Beginning in 1932, Rivers worked for the United States Public Health Service on The Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male in Macon County, Alabama, popularly known as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. She recruited 399 African-American men with syphilis for the study and worked to keep them enrolled as participants in the program. In return for their participation, the study offered participants free medical care, which Nurse Rivers provided. Rivers was the experiment's only consistent full-time staff member.
Although the study was initially planned to run only six months, it eventually extended to 40 years. During the entire study, the participants were not informed that the ailment they called "bad blood" was actually syphilis. When the study started, arsphenamine (Salvarsan) and Neosalvarsan were the only available treatments for syphilis, and both compounds had dangerous side effects. However, even after the 1940s when the discovery of penicillin offered a reliable and safe cure for the disease, study participants still did not receive treatment for syphilis. After the New York Times and Washington Post revealed that study participants had been allowed to suffer rather than receiving a known safe treatment, the Public Health Service ended it in 1972.
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (June 2014)
Once the news of the unethical treatment of participants in the Tuskegee Study was exposed in 1972, Rivers retreated into silence. Some see her primarily as a dedicated nurse, willing to follow any orders to keep treating her patients. Others see her as a race traitor who used her education and class power to keep her job and sell out the rural men she was caring for. There is evidence for both narratives. Just as she was crucial in recruiting and keeping participants in the study, she also provided them with both medical and mental care they otherwise would not have received. She listened to their complaints, suggested ways to gain assistance outside of the hospital, offered them comfort, and provided simple medication, such as vitamins. She helped establish the “Miss Rivers Lodge,” which provided the men’s families financial assistance for burials in exchange for the men’s participation in the study. Her actions provided the men with more treatment opportunities for other conditions than they had previously received from health professionals.
In 1977, Rivers was interviewed for the Black Women Oral History Project.
She died in 1986.
- "Black Women in America: Eunice Rivers Laurie". Beautiful, Also, Are the Souls of my Black Sisters. 21 August 2011. Retrieved 24 May 2014.
- Smith, Susan L. (1996). "Neither Victim nor Villain: Nurse Eunice Rivers, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, and Public Health Work". Journal of Women's History. 8 (1): 95–113. doi:10.1353/jowh.2010.0446.
- Jones, James H.; King, Nancy M. P. (2012-12-01). "Bad Blood Thirty Years Later: A Q&A with James H. Jones". The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. 40 (4): 867–872. doi:10.1111/j.1748-720X.2012.00716.x. ISSN 1748-720X. PMID 23289690.
- Smith, Susan L. (2010-03-25). "Neither Victim nor Villain: Nurse Eunice Rivers, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, and Public Health Work". Journal of Women's History. 8 (1): 95–113. doi:10.1353/jowh.2010.0446. ISSN 1527-2036.
- Reverby, S. M. (1999). "Rethinking the Tuskegee Syphilis Study: Nurse Rivers, Silences, and the Meaning of Treatment". American Association for the History of Nursing. 7: 3–28.
- Marriott, Michel (16 February 1997). "First, Do No Harm: a Nurse And the Deceived Subjects Of the Tuskegee Study". New York Times. Retrieved 24 May 2014.
- “History of an Apology: From Tuskegee to the White House”. Research Nurse, Vol 3 No 4.
- Bernal, Ethan (14 March 2013). "Rivers' role: A deeper look into nurse Eunice Rivers Laurie". The Tuskegee News. Retrieved 24 May 2014.
- Joan Lynaugh (1 June 1999). Nursing History Review, Volume 7, 1999: Official Publication of the American Association for the History of Nursing. Springer Publishing Company. pp. 10–. ISBN 978-0-8261-9698-9.
- Laurie, Eunice (10 October 1977). "Black Women Oral History Project. Interviews, 1976-1981. Eunice Laurie. OH-31". Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University (Interview). Interviewed by A. Lillian Thompson. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Retrieved 24 May 2014.