Olympic Sprinter Gabby Thomas' Life Was Changed Forever by a Lecture on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Only a select few can say they're a Harvard University graduate. Fewer still can claim to be an Olympian. Thomas can lay claim to being both.

The U.S. Army used to have a saying: We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day. What does this have to do with Olympian Gabby Thomas? She may not be in the military... but she's about that kind of life.

Only a select few can say they're a Harvard University graduate. Fewer still can claim to be an Olympian. So it's rarified air to lay claim to both. But that's just who Thomas is.

And did we mention she's currently pursuing her Master's degree in epidemiology, which will probably make her the world's fastest epidemiologist?

Thomas grew up in Florence, Massachusetts, and was recruited to Harvard to compete in the 100m, 200m, long jump, and triple jump. In her three years before turning pro, Thomas won the 2018 NCAA 200m indoor title in addition to claiming 22 conference titles in six different events.

Thomas appeared on the NBCLX podcast "My New Favorite Olympian" to discuss her incredible journey from the Ivy League to the world's greatest athletic stage... the Olympic Games.

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"I was essentially in classes until practice," Thomas says. "And then we would kind of book it to the dining hall to make dinner before it closed at seven. There was no downtime."

While Thomas long had Olympic aspirations, it was a particular lecture at Harvard about the Tuskegee Syphilis study that set her on the road to pursue an advanced degree in epidemiology.

According to the CDC, in 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute, began a study to record the natural history of syphilis. It was originally called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” (now referred to as the “USPHS Syphilis Study at Tuskegee”). The study initially involved 600 Black men – 399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease. Participants’ informed consent was not collected. Researchers told the men they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance.

By 1943, penicillin was the treatment of choice for syphilis and becoming widely available, but the participants in the study were not offered treatment.

"These men were enrolled in the study with the assumption that they were being helped, that all of the research was being done to their benefit. But as it turned out, they ended up having a cure, which was penicillin for syphilis, and never let them know," Thomas says. "And they just continued to do research on them, probe them and do all this just to use their bodies for research, without disclosing to them what they were doing."

Thomas says the lecture changed her life and shaped her time at Harvard. "Ever since taking that course, I thought of everything that I was learning kind of in that lens — even wanting to go and work in health care, just making sure that I had that lens and thinking about the perspective of the United States health care system from an African-American perspective, because it is very different."

Thomas adds, "I want to go into health care administration just to work on it from the inside point so I can actually get in there and improve the systems."

For more of our conversation with Thomas check out our podcast "My New Favorite Olympian" hosted by NBCLX's Ngozi Ekeledo and Olympic fencing medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad. Don't miss an episode. CLICK HERE to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.