Another reprehensible chapter in the dark history of medical experimentation on people of color by the U.S. government was recently brought to light. Between 1946 and 1948, American scientists intentionally infected prisoners and patients in a Guatemalan mental hospital with syphilis and gonorrhea.
The recently unearthed National Institutes of Health (NIH) experiment, which was conducted over 60 years ago, prompted President Barack Obama and Secretary of State, Hilary Rodham Clinton, to call the president of Guatemala, Alvaro Colomto, to officially apologize.
"We are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health," said Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
The NIH-funded experiment to test what was at the time a relatively new drug, penicillin, was discovered by a Wellesley College medical historian. The purpose of the study was to see if penicillin could prevent some sexually transmitted diseases. The research was a bust; it produced no useful clinical knowledge and was buried by the government for decades.
Amazingly, Guatemalan officials had no idea that the experiment even took place until they were contacted by Clinton.
The only reason we know anything about this appalling instance of medical research is because Wellesley College historian Susan Reverby discovered it while going through the research notes of a U.S. government funded "madman" named Dr. John Cutler.
Cutler is the same researcher who was responsible for the infamous Tuskegee experiment. The particulars of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study are well known: between 1932 and 1972, Cutler and his staff, tracked 600 Black men who had syphilis, never offering them treatment for their illness.
Of course, using people of color as guinea pigs for medical research is not new nor should it come as a surprise. Blacks have frequently been mistreated by the medical establishment dating all the way back to the colonial period. Harriet A. Washington in her book, Medical Apartheid, explores several important themes about the use of blacks for medical experimentation:
These include the selection of blacks for the riskiest studies; their disproportionate selection for nontherapeutic experimentation; the myth of medical distinctiveness (which held that syphilis was manifested differently in blacks); and the myth of hypersexed blacks as "incorrigible" vectors of sexual disease and dysfunction.
But, the Guatemala research was even more ghoulish than the Tuskegee Syphilis Study: although at the time Guatemalan government officials sanctioned the study, a total of 969 unwilling and unwitting subjects – both men and women – were exposed to syphilis and in some instances gonorrhea. The exposure was done through jail visits by prostitutes or, in some cases, by deliberately inoculating them.
Unlike the men in the Tuskegee study, however, the Guatemalan subjects were given penicillin. Nonetheless, it is not clear just how many were successfully treated for the diseases.
Because so little is known about the Guatemalan Syphilis Study, two independent investigations have been ordered by the U.S. government to uncover the truth.
Whatever the outcome of the investigation, the United States government, on behalf of the American people, owes the people of Guatemala more than just a phone call for this medical nightmare. They deserve a formal apology and reparations for the families of the survivors. This would send an important message to the rest of the world that this kind of conduct is not acceptable, even if it happened 60 years ago.
On May 16, 1997, President Bill Clinton formally apologized for the Tuskegee experiment to the surviving eight men and their families:
To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish. What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry…. To Macon County, to Tuskegee, to the doctors who have been wrongly associated with the events there, you have our apology, as well. To our African American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist. That can never be allowed to happen again.
The Tuskegee and Guatemala Syphilis Study's were not anomalies. According to the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, the U.S. government conducted more than 40 deliberate-infection studies in the U.S. during the time the Tuskegee and Guatemala experiments were going on.
Moreover, the truth is that what happened in Guatemala more than likely occurred in other countries. All the records of our nation's dark history of medical research around the world must be made public.