U.S. Scientists Conducted "Unethical" Experiments On Guatemalans In 1940s
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U.S. SCIENTISTS KNEW 1940S GUATEMALAN STD STUDIES WERE UNETHICAL, PANEL
By Rob Stein
August 29, 2011
U.S. government researchers who purposely infected unwitting subjects
with sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala in the 1940s had
obtained consent a few years earlier before conducting similar
experiments in Indiana, investigators reported Monday.
The stark contrast between how the U.S. Public Health Service scientists
experimented with Americans and Guatemalans clearly shows that
researchers knew their conduct was unethical, according to members of
the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which is
investigating the experiments.
“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 is reprehensible.”
At least 5,500 prisoners, mental patients, soldiers and children were
drafted into the experiments, including at least 1,300 who were exposed
to the sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid,
the commission reported. At least 83 subjects died, although the
commission could not determine how many of the deaths were directly
caused by the experiments, they said.
“This is a dark chapter in our history. It is important to shine the
light of day on it. We owe it to the people of Guatemala who were
experimented on, and we owe it to ourselves to recognize what a dark
chapter it was,” said Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania, the
The revelations came on the opening day of a two-day hearing the
commission convened to review the findings of its investigation.
President Obama ordered the probe when the experiments were revealed in
October. Investigators reviewed more than 125,000 documents from public
and private archives around the country and conducted a fact-finding
trip to the Central American nation.
The Guatemalan government is conducting its own investigation. The
experiments were approved by some Guatemalan officials.
“Actually cruel and inhuman conduct took place,” said Anita L. Allen of
the University of Pennsylvania. “These are very grave human rights
In one case described during Monday’s two-hour hearing, a woman who was
infected with syphilis was clearly dying from the disease. Instead of
treating her, the researchers poured gonorrhea-infected pus into her
eyes and other orifices and infected her again with syphilis. She died
six months later.
The ultimate goal of the Guatemalan research was to determine whether
taking penicillin after sex would protect against syphilis, gonorrhea
and chancroid. The question was a medical priority at the time,
especially in the military. The Guatemalan experiments, carried out
between 1946 and 1948, aimed to find a reliable way of infecting
subjects for future studies.
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
The researchers conducted similar experiments on soldiers in an army
barracks and on men and women in the National Mental Health Hospital.
The researchers took blood samples from children at the National
Orphanage, although they did not purposely infect them.
In the studies conducted in Indiana, researchers exposed 241 inmates in
Terre Haute to gonorrhea in 1943 and 1944. But there, the researchers
explained the experiments in advance in detail and experimented only on
the prisoners who volunteered. In contrast, many of the same researchers
who began experimenting on Guatemalans a few years later actively hid
what they were doing and never tried to obtain permission, the
About 700 of the Guatemalan subjects were treated for the sexually
transmitted diseases, but it remains unclear whether they were treated
adequately or what became of them. Gonorrhea can cause a variety of
complications, including infertility. Chancroid can cause painful
ulcers. Syphilis can cause blindness, major organ damage, paralysis,
dementia and death.
Susan M. Reverby, a historian at Wellesley College in Massachusetts,
discovered the Guatemalan experiments while doing research for a book on
the infamous Tuskegee studies in Alabama. Reverby found papers from John
C. Cutler, a doctor with the federal government’s Public Health Service.
Cutler had participated in the Tuskegee experiment, in which hundreds of
African American men with late-stage syphilis were left untreated to
study the disease between 1932 and 1972. Cutler died in 2003.
After sending Obama a report in September, the commission will meet
again in November to discuss whether current protections are adequate
for research subjects internationally and in the United States and will
issue a final report in December.
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