Presidential Panel Condemns US Syphilis Study in Guatemala
- Alliance for Human Research Protection
A Catalyst for Debate
A year after professor Susan M. Reverby, a historian at Wellesley College in
Massachusetts, uncovered a heinous Guatemalan syphilis experiment conducted
between 1946 and 1948, on at least 5,500 under the auspices of the US Public
Health Service, a hearing was held this week about the findings of the
President's Bioethics Commission investigation.
The Commission confirms that despite knowledge that it was unethical, US
government medical scientists PURPOSELY infected "at least 1,300 who were
exposed to the sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, gonorrhea and
chancroid" to study the effects of penicillin. At least 83 subjects died.
"They infected soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners and mental patients. More
than 5,500 people in all were part of the medical experimentation.And the
presidential panel said government scientists knew they were violating
The research "included infecting prisoners by bringing them prostitutes who
were either already carrying the diseases or were purposely infected by the
researchers. Doctors also poured bacteria onto wounds they had opened with
needles on prisoners' penises, faces and arms. In some cases, infectious
material was injected into their spines, the commission reported."
None of those who were drafted volunteered or consented to the experiment.
One such victimized human being was a mental patient named Berta.
"She was first deliberately infected with syphilis and, months later,
given penicillin. After that, Dr. John C. Cutler of the Public Health
Service, who led the experiments, described her as so unwell that she
"appeared she was going to die." Nonetheless, he inserted pus from a male
gonorrhea victim into her eyes, urethra and rectum. Four days later,
infected in both eyes and bleeding from the urethra, she died."
Anita L. Allen, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania's law school
said: "Actually cruel and inhuman conduct took place. These are very grave
human rights violations."
Those subjected to these gruesome experiments "were poor, handicapped or
imprisoned Guatemalans. They were chosen because they were "available and
BBC reported on March 14, 2011 that the researchers bribed care workers to
let them infect their charges and prisoners were encouraged to sleep with
Members of the President's Commission concluded that "These researchers knew
these were unethical experiments, and they conducted them anyway," said Raju
Kucherlapati of Harvard Medical School, a commission member. "That is what
Another panelist, John Arras, a bioethicist at the University of Virginia,
stated: "I really do believe that a very rigorous judgment of moral blame
can be lodged against some of these people."
The primary investigator of a series of inhumane, government-sponsored,
syphilis experiments was John C. Cutler. He and his team of US scientists
conducted syphilis experiments on US prisoners at Terre Haute, Indiana, and
at Sing Sing, New York; on poor African-American men with late-stage
syphilis at Tuskegee, denying them treatment until 1973; and they
deliberately infected mental patients and prisoners in Guatemala, causing 83
PubMed, the database for medical-scientific journal articles, lists John C.
Cutler as the author on 58 journal articles published between 1946 and 1995.
He died without ever being held accountable, in 2003.
The study was carried out by US scientists between 1946 and 1948.
Researchers bribed care workers to let them infect their charges and
prisoners were encouraged to have sex with infected prostitutes.
The experiment is acknowledged to be "much worse than Tuskegee."
On Oct 2010 the US Apologized to the current Guatemalan government and
President Obama oordered an investigation , on Nov 2010.
Today, profit--not cure--reins supreme in medical research. The major
sponsors of current medical experiments--which are referred to as "clinical
trials"--are the pharmaceutical companies whose singular goal is to obtain
FDA approval for marketing their products.Most new drugs are "me too" copy
cats that offer no improvement, but all too often result in serious harm.
Arthur Caplan. director of the Bioethics Center at the University of
Pennsylvania--a center whose dependency on pharmaceutical industry funding
is legendary--is hardly someone who is objective. He tried to shield his
benefactors by claiming: "I don't think the pharmaceutical companies are
running around giving people diseases or operating in prisons or mental
To gain an objective, evidence-based perspective, one must turn to evidence
gathered by lawyers during litigation, by independent, ethicists who are not
industry's academic shills, such as Carl Elliott: Useless Studies, Real
Harm, The New York Times, and Making a Killing--Marketing Exercises; and
investigative reports--such as, Vanity Fair: Deadly Medicine: Foreign
Clinical Trials, Bloomberg News: Big Pharma's Shameful Secret and Montreal
Clinical Trial Subjects Exposed to Tuberculosis ; PBS: "Bitter Pill" Based
on Bloomberg Pharma's Shameful Secret Report, The Washington Post: Pfizer
Faulted-1996 Clinical Trials In Nigeria: Unapproved Drug Tested On
Kids...(links to articles at: http://www.ahrp.org/cms/content/view/833/9/ )
The weakness of the current regulatory system is acknowledged by most
independent analysts without financial ties to industry. The trials lack
independent review and oversight, and human subjects continue to be mostly
the poor and disenfranchised. Furthermore, many experiments fail to meet
valid ethical and scientific justification.
New drugs brought to market are mostly "me too" copy-cats that do NOT
improve medical outcomes. Indeed, numerous drugs have been pulled from the
market after they killed or maimed patients.
Ironically, in July, the US government, under the Obama Administration,
issued proposed regulatory changes (92 pp.) that would (essentially)
eviscerate the very regulatory legal protections that were adopted in the
wake of the revelations about the unethical conduct of the Tuskegee syphilis
This week, the President's Bioethics Commission urged the US to join the
rest of the civilized world, by ADDING compensation requirements for the
protection of human research subjects--either directly or through mandatory
"The panel felt strongly that it was wrong and a mistake that the United
States was an outlier in not specifying any system for compensation for
research subjects other than, 'You get a lawyer and sue.'"
Read more...including links to articles at:
Below, ABC News: Syphilis Experiments Shock, But So Do Third World Drug
The New York Times: Panel Hears Grim Details of Venereal Disease Tests
The Washington Post: Compensation system urged for research victims
Read more at:
The Washington Post: U.S. scientists knew 1940s Guatemalan STD studies
were unethical, panel finds
U.S. apologizes for newly revealed syphilis experiments done in
BBC News: US scientists 'knew Guatemala syphilis tests unethical'
Al Jazeera: Panel condemns US syphilis study in Guatemala
Contact: Vera Hassner Sharav
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