About 60 years ago, the United States government intentionally infected hundreds of people in Guatemala with gonorrhea and syphilis without their knowledge or permission.
The report is based on a study by Susan M. Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College.
“In 1946-48, Dr. John C. Cutler, a PHS physician who would later be part of the Syphilis Study in Alabama in the 1960s and continue to defend it two decades after it ended in the 1990s, was running a syphilis inoculation project in Guatemala, co-sponsored by the PHS, the National Institutes of Health, the Pan American Health Sanitary Bureau (now the Pan American Health Organization), and the Guatemalan government,” Reverby, wrote.U.S. taxpayers, through the Public Health Service (PHS), paid for prostitutes who tested positive for either syphilis or gonorrhea to offer their services to the inmates in Guatemala City’s Central Penitentiary. Uninfected prostitutes, in another set of experiments, had inoculum of the diseases placed on their cervixes before the sexual visits began, and tests were done on inmates both prior to the prostitutes’ visits and afterwards to see if they were infected.
Researchers also tried to make inoculum from scrapings of the chancres on the bodies of already infected asylum inmates, as well as army men who had been infected with a “street strain.”
According to the report, PHS physician R.C. Arnold, supervising Cutler from afar, indicated he was more troubled about the ethics of the project than Cutler was.
“I am a bit, in fact more than a bit, leery of the experiment with the insane people. They can not give consent, do not know what is going on, and if some goody organization got wind of the work, they would raise a lot of smoke,” he confided to Cutlar eight months after the “Doctors’ Trials” at Nuremberg had ended, according to the report. “I think the soldiers would be best or the prisoners for they can give consent. Maybe I’m too conservative…”
Hillary Clinton and Kathleen Sebelius will offer public apologies today for the role of the U.S. Public Health Service in the Guatemala project.
“Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health. We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices,” they said. “The conduct exhibited during the study does not represent the values of the United States, or our commitment to human dignity and great respect for the people of Guatemala.”
Today, the regulations that govern research funded by the U.S. government, whether conducted domestically or internationally “would absolutely prohibit this type of study” said Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes for Health, in a phone briefing with reporters mid-morning on Friday.
The Guatemala experiments never provided any useful information and the records were hidden, according to Reverby. The full study can be read here.
News of the study was first reported by MSNBC on Friday.
[Ed. note: This story has been updated.]