The Tuskegee “Experiment” is a well-known, ugly and appallingly long chapter in American history. For 40 years, government medical researchers followed the effects of syphilis in more than 600 black Alabamians, without ever treating them or providing them with adequate medical information.
Now we learn of another medical “experiment” — one involving, incredibly, the same government researcher — that was if possible even worse: Almost 700 men and women in a Guatemala mental hospital were deliberately infected with syphilis or gonorrhea between 1946 and 1948, in a study of possible preventive effects in penicillin. The tests produced no useful conclusions, and were hidden away.
The project was funded by the National Institutes of Health and led by Dr. John Cutler, who at the time was still involved in the Tuskegee study that lasted from 1932 until 1972. Susan Reverby, a historian at Wellesley College, discovered the records of the Guatemala project while studying Cutler’s papers on Tuskegee.
Evidence that such a vulnerable population was abused so badly in the name of science prompted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius to issue a statement expressing outrage “that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health.” A personal apology from President Obama to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom followed shortly thereafter.
Reverby’s research uncovered evidence that the NIH had permission from Guatemalan officials to do a study, but did not inform the subjects — a detail that has no bearing on the moral responsibility of the U.S. government for such a loathsome project.
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