Eunice Verdell Rivers was born on November 12, 1899, in Jakin, Georgia. She was best known as “Nurse Rivers” during her time as a public health nurse with the Macon County Health Department in Alabama. Her name became entangled with the infamous “Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” the colloquial name for the United States Public Health Service’s Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male which operated from 1932 to 1972. When the Study was first publicly revealed in 1972 it was met with shock and outrage. It was equally shocking that Rivers, an African American nurse, served as the key lynchpin between Black “patients,” or subjects, and White Public Health Service (PHS) doctors. Was she a villain, complicit in furthering the racist project of White physicians? Or was she a powerless victim, caught in the mid-twentieth century dynamics of race and gender combined with the professional power differential between nurses and doctors? To historians, Rivers remains an enigmatic figure, leaving a scant historical record to discern her motivations, her thoughts, and ultimately her level of complicity with the Study. While Nurse Rivers remains a complicated figure in the history of medicine, Eunice Laurie led a full life, lesser-known to her critics, in her adopted home of Tuskegee, Alabama.
Eunice Rivers was the eldest of three daughters born to a farmer and sawmill worker father and a homemaker mother. Her mother died at the age of 45, while Eunice was an adolescent. Before her passing, her mother and father both agreed on the value of a good education for Eunice over working in the Georgia fields. Following her mother’s death, Eunice was sent away to mission schools and completed her secondary education at the famous Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington. She enrolled in the Institute in 1918, where she shifted from an initial interest in handicrafts to nurse training. When she graduated in 1922, according to historian Susan Reverby, she was widely regarded as one of the best nurses the Institute had ever produced.
In her adopted home of Tuskegee, Rivers was an active member of her community and her church. She married Julius Laurie, a nurse worker whom she met in church, in 1952. She worked for the Macon County Health Department while instructing public health nurse trainees at the Institute. Some of her students described her as the “Harriet Tubman” of nursing, a woman who maintained her dignity and respect but also a woman skilled at negotiating social and professional worlds as an African American female nurse.
Nurse Rivers began working part-time for the Study upon its inception. She was recommended for the position, given her reputation in the Institute, by the African American physician Eugene Dibble who also served as a Study consultant. Initially, her role was minimal but as the Study progressed she became its face to the men she called “patients” and the PHS doctors who sought to mold her into the most effective “scientific assistant.” In all of this, she insisted that she cared for the men of Macon County Alabama, bringing them food and clothing along with minor treatments for pain. She frequently followed up on her “patients,” while providing updates to PHS researchers. She was crucial in keeping these men engaged with the study, though there is some evidence that she may have advised others to seek penicillin treatment to cure their potentially fatal disease left untreated by the Study. Rivers was awarded the Oveta Culp Hobby medal in 1958 by the federal government for her “meritorious” work with the Study. She took great pride in this award, though tinged with the moral atrocities now associated with the Study. Several years later, Rivers resigned her position with the Study, occasionally assisting Study staff as needed.
Eunice Verdell Rivers Laurie passed away on August 28, 1986, fourteen years after the Study was first publicly revealed. Notably, her husband excluded the name by which the nurse was best known and the name that came to be entangled with the Study’s infamy. Her headstone reads: “Eunice Verdell Laurie.”
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When I teach the history of the Tuskegee Study, I confront two persistent challenges. The first is to combat the powerful myths surrounding the Study. One example is the assertion that Black men were deliberately infected with syphilis to be studied. The second challenge, however, is that students’ views on the subject are already baked in with limited, if not false, understandings of this historical episode. The Tuskegee Study today is rightly viewed as a moral atrocity highlighting the perils of scientific research with human subjects—but it did not begin that way. I try to impart to my students that our evaluation of historical events is crucial, but they must be situated in historical context. Moreover, they must imagine historical actors operating in their own historical, social, political, and economic context.
Nurse Rivers, as a pivotal yet enigmatic actor in this case, offers a lesson in historical imagination and empathy—lessons that are more necessary today than ever. Understanding Nurse Rivers’s role in the Study demands both imagination and empathy precisely because she leaves a scant historical record and because her underlying motivations are not easily determined. In other words, her role prompts more questions than answers, a fruitful space to explore historical contingencies. These questions might include: Why did she continue to work with the Public Health Service? Why did she not stop the study when it became clear that the “patients” were denied life-saving penicillin treatments? Why did she not do more to help these men? These questions lead to other important questions: What options did Nurse Rivers have as an African American female nurse in Jim Crow Alabama? Would her protests have stopped the Study and its fatal consequences altogether?
In hindsight, it is easy to apply judgement, especially given the powerful cultural valences the Study has taken on since it was publicly revealed. Yet these judgements are difficult to maintain with deeper study of Rivers as a historical figure. There is no question that Rivers contributed to the Study’s overall harm, but the more important lesson is how she came to do so.
This exercise is important, not only to complicate Rivers’s involvement moving beyond initial judgements, but also to encourage students to think about what they would do. How would they respond, especially if they maintained the same identities in the same historical context? This exercise places students closer to the history, but also leads them to think critically about what lessons they can take away from this case so that if confronted with a similar situation in a new historical context they are prepared to ask the right questions and to make the right decisions.
Nurse Rivers, like all of us, was a fallible human being. While some are more fallible than others, Rivers most certainly did not begin her work with evil intentions. That alone distinguishes her from more senior-level researchers involved in the Study. Yet she does occupy the uneasy middling territory where in some instances she was complicit with the Study’s atrocities. At other moments, she resisted these harms in what historian Susan Reverby calls “moral triage.”
It is apt to remember Nurse Rivers at this moment, as Americans confront the long history of racial oppression. Americans are reengaging with the legacies of deified figures like Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, and J. Marion Sims. Their legacies are being reformulated as we all reexamine who they were, what they did, and ultimately how they reflect the values of our society. Nurse Rivers never achieved this level of national prestige, despite her recognition from the federal government, because her legacy was critically debated once she became a public figure. Though Nurse Rivers may not have acted in the way that we would have hoped, participating in a research study that did so much harm to African Americans, she nonetheless offers lessons in how we must engage with complicated historical figures. More importantly, her case demonstrates that even complicated, if not outright harmful, historical figures still have much to teach us if we are to achieve a more just and equitable society.
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Reverby, S. Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy. The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture. University of North Carolina Press, 2009.