U.S. Apologizes for Deliberately Infecting Guatemalans With Syphilis

Even as doctors and judges in Europe were developing the Nuremberg Code in response to Nazi doctors’ human experiments, U.S. medical researchers were intentionally infecting non-consenting Guatemalans with potentially deadly diseases.

On Friday, President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius apologized for medical experiments the American government performed on Guatemalan prisoners and mentally ill patients from 1946 to 1948. A team of U.S. government researchers deliberately infected nearly 700 Guatemalan men with syphilis and gonorrhea as an experiment to see whether penicillin acted as an innoculant, as well as a cure (the Boston Globe reports over 1,500 were infected, BBC News and the New York Times say almost 700 — The Guardian reports that 696 were included). None of the subjects consented to the study.

The experiment was unearthed by Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby. Professor Reverby made her discovery while doing research for a book on the infamous Tuskegee experiments, in which doctors deliberately withheld treatment from 399 poor African-American men with syphilis for forty years in order to observe the progress of the disease. (Untreated syphilis can lead to heart failure, damaged bones, blindness, insanity, and death.) This 1932 to 1972 study involved numerous doctors, including John C. Cutler — the same man who oversaw the experiments in Guatemala.

As Professor Reverby describes on NPR, the Guatemalan experiments differ from the Tuskegee study. Unlike in Tuskegee, the Guatemalan subjects were actively infected with the disease, first through conjugal visits with an infected prostitute, and later through a concoction being poured onto skin abrasions the doctors made on the patients’ arms, faces and penises. Also unlike Tuskegee, the patients were treated for their infections — the point of the experiment was not to see the diseases progress, but to see if penicillin could inoculate patients against infection. However, it is unclear if all the Guatemalans were successfully treated and made full recoveries.

The experiments have an important similarity beyond the common disease and absolute lack of informed consent, though — in them, U.S. government scientists deliberately used vulnerable human populations who were unlikely to insight interest or intervention by other members of the general public. In Tuskegee, this meant poor black sharecroppers in Alabama. In Guatemala, it meant prisoners and people with mental illnesses who were from another country and didn’t speak English.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Upon learning of these experiments, President Obama personally called the Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom to apologize and to assure him these experiments “ran contrary to American values.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius publicly apologized to Guatemala and those affected by the research. They called the experiments “clearly unethical” and “abhorrent” and expressed their deep regret. In addition, the U.S. government has asked the independent agency, the Institute of Medicine, to investigate the study.

President Colom called the experiments “a crime against humanity.” The Guatemalan government is planning to examine the role and culpability of their own officials, who Reverby says gave American researchers permission to experiment.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the experiments were “shocking, it’s tragic, it’s reprehensible.” Unfortunately, though these revelations are indeed tragic and reprehensible, they aren’t particularly shocking. The United States government, American doctors, and American drug companies have a long, sordid history of carrying out medical experiments on unwilling subjects. The Tuskegee experiments are the most well-known example, but they are hardly the only one.

For instance, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s doctors from the University of Pennsylvania performed multiple experiments on prisoners at the Holmesberg State Prison, including injecting them with Agent Orange toxins. These experiments, which were done on behalf of chemical companies and the U.S. Army, left prisoners with lasting damage to their skin, immune systems, and psyches.

Over the course of 15 years at Staten Island’s Willowbrook State School, which housed mentally disabled children, New York University researchers infected hundreds of mentally disabled children with hepatitis (pdf) in order to gauge how well injected gamma globulin antibodies protected the children from infection. (The researchers did get parents’ permission, though I’d argue parents shouldn’t be allowed to agree to infecting their child with a painful illness unless it is somehow essential for the child’s well-being.)

Just this summer, Physicians for Human Rights accused the CIA of carrying out medical experiments on detainees in order to perfect torture methods.

And as the Washington Post points out, the revelation of these experiments in Guatemala comes at a time “U.S. drug companies are increasingly going to poor, less-educated countries to test new drugs and other therapies.”

Many news reports reassure us that this kind of thing could never happen again. In the wake of the Tuskegee experiments coming to light, in 1974 Senator Ted Kennedy strengthened regulation over tests involving human subjects. As the medical community is quick to point out, we have safeguards in place that should prevent the kinds of abuse Guatemalans suffered in the 40s.

Doctors are right to be concerned about rebuilding trust in the system. The revelation of the Tuskegee experiments has had long-term negative effects on the trust many placed in the medical establishment. African-American men, for instance, are notoriously leery of participating in medical research or even believing doctors instructions. And why not? After all, why would anyone trust an institution so callous and so racist that they watched people like them become blind and insane and die as an easily-killed-by-antibiotics infection ravaged their brains… just because the researchers were interested in what would happen?

Yet without trust, the medical establishment cannot run well-regulated honest clinical trials, treat diseases, or even promote preventative care — so while its easy to see why many fear them, doctors and researchers are understandably anxious to reassure all of us that these experiments were  aberrations never to be repeated.

It is important these experiments were brought to light, and not only because I think it’s important to know and acknowledge the truth. These stories will also turn the public eye on the dangers that arise when the medical and drug industries are not strictly regulated and vigorously investigated. Reassurance and apologies aren’t enough. We need to see evidence to ensure overseas experiments are being thoroughly vetted (let’s avoid a The Constant Gardener scenario, shall we?), and we need to know medical schools and labs are explicitly training their doctors and researchers to respect the consent of their subjects even if their subjects are poor, or black, female, or don’t speak English, or are in prison, or are mentally ill. We need to keep the spotlight on the government, the health care industries, and the drug companies — and they need to win back our trust inch by painful inch. Abject apologies are a step, and regulations that are currently in place are far superior to the shoddy oversight of the 40s, but these laws and words need to be backed up with transparency and action.

Photo of Guatemalan women at a market by Librex, licensed for reuse through Creative Commons.


Byron M.
Byron M.5 years ago

conclusion...... It is ridiculous to think that such experiments are still not being done today using prisoners, students and mentally ill ppl. In many cases with written permission.

Byron M.
Byron M.5 years ago

Continued>>>> I hallucinated and saw things that weren't there and heard voices that no one else heard. I did some pretty weird things like jumping off the roof of the barn to fly. Then finally an inhaled drug became available which helped relive my asthma and the first antihistamines became available. Today and for the past several years I have been taking inhaled Corticosteroids for asthma relief and a daily dose of antihistamines for allergy relief. Periodically I have to have injections and have had to have an overnight stay in the hospital due to a severe asthma attack. Many of the drugs I was given when I was a child left lasting side effects. Especially the LSD and Narcotic drugs. I was used as a living experiment in an attempt to save my life. My parents agreed to these as I did myself when I got older. I didn't know the risk involved because the doctors didn't know either. But unlike the experiments in this article, I was given drugs to try to save me from dying. The ppl in these horrendous drug experiments were allowed to die so some perverted scientist could see what pain and torture the person would go through before succumbing to death. I am certain many will remember the Cameron experiments involving mentally ill people giving them electric shock to their brains which destroyed their mind and memory and in many cases left the ppl crippled for life. These were financed by the US military and performed in Canada. It is ridiculous to think that such ex

Byron M.
Byron M.5 years ago

Back in the mid 1950's when I was a kid, I suffered from allergies and asthma. As the doctors told me, they were using me as a Guinea Pig and giving me drugs that had not been tested to see if they would help. I did some checking in later years with the pharmacy as to what I was given. Once I was given Tranquillizers as it was thought that asthma was cause by a nervous disorder. I was given a Kellogg brand of treatment which contained, among other chemicals, marijuana. I was given Narcotic drugs that are no longer on the market because of side affects. One doctor gave me LSD for a short period of time- this was confirmed by the local pharmacy. My mother order little round brown pills from the USA that seemed to help for a short period of time. What was in them I have no idea. I was also taken to a Native doctor, known as a Shaman. He gave me a herbal mixture of all sorts of seeds, leaves, tree needles and what even looked to me like rabbit poop. That concoction was brewed up and steeped into a tea that I drank several times each day. Surprisingly, it did seem to help relieve my asthma. But since it cost $7 a week to have it sent through the mail my parents could not afford to keep getting it. I was given injections of I don't know what. There were periods of time in my teen years that I can't remember aside from a floating feeling and my legs and feet not having any feeling or connection to my body. I hallucinated and saw things that weren't there and heard voices that no o

Hanan W.
Hana W.5 years ago

Is an apology sufficient? I think not...

Past Member
Past Member 5 years ago

This isn't surprising, sorry to say. Watch the BBC documentary on YouTube called 'Guinea Pig Kids' & see what these drug companies, along with the City of NY & the foster care system do to black, hispanic, HIV infected kids. Peace to all~

Kelly L.
Kelly Levans5 years ago

Well, it wasn't Obama's fault. Even though what happened can't be changed, I find it heartening that he tried to make amends for something he had nothing to do with.

Laura Smith-Gary
Laura Smith-Gary6 years ago

Nicholas, there is a cure for syphilis -- penicillin or other antibiotics can take care of it fairly easily. That obviously doesn't change this incident, but good to know.

Annick Letourneau

Dark side of human... this is so sad!
Even with apologies...

Nicholas Mancuso
Nicholas Mancuso6 years ago

Anything that is irrational, makes no logical sense, can't be made sense of no matter how hard you try and makes your head spin like an episode of the Twilight Zone is simply and entirely EVIL. Evil is real,you see it here,right in our face. Disguised as our fellow men and women.

Nicholas Mancuso
Nicholas Mancuso6 years ago

I give up. This world is no different than a horror movie. In the name of what, makes these type of experiments right. It can't be taken back like a bullet from a gun. If anything, it goes to show we have have not grown in our compassion for others. Oh,let me guess. There's still no cure either,right? It also tells another tale. If people,(government) are willing and capable of this they can't be trusted and should not be.