MEXICO CITY – Exposing a dark page in its history, the US government
acknowledged Friday that government scientists had infected some 1,500
Guatemalans with syphilis and gonorrhea in experiments from 1946 to 1948 in
“appalling violations” of medical ethics.
US scientists infected
prostitutes with syphilis or gonorrhea and sent them to have unprotected sex
with soldiers or prison inmates, later testing them for possible cures, US
When few became infected, scientists turned to patients
at a mental health hospital, exposing them to infection by rubbing it on their
None of the subjects were informed about the study or offered
consent, US officials said. At least one patient is known to have
“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,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services
Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a joint statement.
“We deeply regret
that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by
such abhorrent research practices.” The statement said current regulations
prohibit such “appalling violations” of ethics regarding human medical research
and added that the two departments would launch “a thorough investigation” of
the 1946-1948 study in Guatemala.
Clinton called President Alvaro Colom
of Guatemala Thursday night “to express her personal outrage, deep regret,”
Arturo Valenzuela, the assistant Secretary of State for Western hemisphere
affairs, said in a message on Twitter.
Colom voiced anger on Friday:
“These should be considered crimes against humanity and Guatemala reserves the
right to petition the relevant international court at an opportune time.”
Friday’s acknowledgment shed new light on US medical experiments that included
the infamous Tuskegee study in which scientists observed, but didn’t treat,
hundreds of African- American men with late-stage syphilis in Macon County,
Ala., starting in 1932 until it was exposed by the media in 1972.
Wellesley College professor of history and women’s studies, Susan
Reverby, discovered evidence of the secret US tests in Guatemala while
examining papers on the Tuskegee study held at the University of Pittsburgh
“I was very shocked when I saw all of this,” she said in a
telephone interview, adding that she pieced together details of the study from
letters and reports in the archive.
“Whoever knew about it was long
dead,” Reverby said.
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) The papers showed that
a US Public Health Service team led by physician John C. Cutler infected men and
women in the Guatemalan National Penitentiary, an army barracks and a mental
Cutler, who was a former deputy director of the Pan
American Sanitary Bureau, a precursor of the Pan American Health Organization,
had little difficulty winning Guatemalan support for the study through pledges
of medicine, such as penicillin and an anticonvulsant drug for
US tax dollars paid for the program. Cutler later took up a
post at the University of Pittsburgh.
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) “The
doctors used prostitutes with the disease to pass it to the prisoners (since
sexual visits were allowed by law in Guatemalan prisons) and then did direct
inoculations,” either on the men’s genitalia, forearms, face or through spinal
injections, Reverby wrote in a research paper.
US scientists grew
frustrated at the slow pace of infection in the prison, so they turned to a
mental health hospital.
“They would hold a guy’s penis for an hour to an
hour and a half to make sure it got in there,” Reverby said. “It was pretty
gruesome.” Patients never offered consent, but were given cigarettes, she
The purpose of the study was to determine how to prevent infection
from syphilis, using different doses of penicillin, as well as to find effective
treatments, she wrote.
The HHS fact sheet said “some of the persons
infected with syphilis were prescribed only partial treatment or not treated at
all.” Cutler, who died in 2003, was aware that his research skirted ethical
rules even at that time, Reverby wrote. In one June 1947 letter, Cutler wrote a
colleague that “a few words to the wrong person here, or even at home, might
wreck it.” Cutler’s supervisor, R.C. Arnold, was unsettled, writing Cutler in
April 1948, shortly before ending the project, that “I am a bit, in fact more
than a bit, leery of the experiment with the insane people. They cannot 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.”– MCT