About the SA Blog Network



Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

Exploitative experiments: U.S. government researchers secretly infected Guatemalans with syphilis in the 1940s

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

syphilisThe U.S. government apologized Friday for a previously unreported experiment that infected hundreds of un-consenting Guatemalans with syphilis in the 1940s.

The research was "clearly unethical," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a joint statement. "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." Contemporary U.S. research standards require informed consent from study participants as well as approval from an institutional review board.

Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom has called the tests "crimes against humanity," BBC News reported.

The research was uncovered by Susan Reverby, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley College. She found that between 1946 and 1948, 696 individuals at the Guatemala National Penitentiary, the National Mental Health Hospital and military barracks in Guatemala were exposed to the sexually transmitted disease (the prisoners via infected prostitutes and the others via direct inoculation). "Permissions were gained from the authorities but not individuals, not an uncommon practice at the time," Reverby noted in a synopsis [pdf] of a forthcoming Journal of Policy History paper on the subject. The individuals were then given penicillin to see if it would cure the disease, but whether it worked on all subjects "is not clear," she wrote in the synopsis.

The Guatemala study was led by John Cutler, a doctor with the U.S. Public Health Service, who was also involved in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which researchers infected hundreds of poor black men in Macon County, Ala., with syphilis to study the disease. The Tuskegee study, which started in 1932, was halted only after newspaper coverage highlighted the experiments in 1972. President Bill Clinton offered a formal apology on behalf of the government in 1997.

Ethics behind any medical research can be tricky, especially when it is being conducted on people from another country or region. "It’s still ethically contentious as to how we ought to conduct, or whether we ought to conduct, certain forms of research in poor nations today," Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at University of Pennsylvania, told the Associated Press.

Other alleged unethical experiments carried out with government backing, such as LSD tests on unwitting U.S. service members and possibly on French civilians, have not been acknowledged by the government. But the latest revelation resulted in a formal apology from Clinton and Sebelius: "We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices." They have promised a thorough investigation into the case.

Image of Treponema pallidum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/CDC

Rights & Permissions

Comments 9 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. scientific earthling 9:30 pm 10/1/2010

    We can not judge acts committed by older generations based on the ethics of the present generation. This applies across the board, including passages from the bible and the bombing of Dresden. Ethics evolve just as life-forms do.
    The current manslaughter charges against coalition soldiers for killing a woman and children with a grenade, is a case in point. No one would ever have consider charging soldiers who were being attacked by militants from a house for killing civilians also present in that house. Does not matter if the militants were related to the victims.
    In my opinion this puts the soldiers in a position of die at the hands of your attackers, but do nothing to defend yourself should you accidentally kill or injure others present. If I was in the military I would resign immediately.

    Link to this
  2. 2. aaron.kesu 10:12 pm 10/1/2010

    I do not think this episode is the worst of human nature compared to what the Japanese did the many Chinese victims during WW2 when with their Unit 731 live human experiments were done on Chinese subjects.

    See attached youtube report

    It surprising that such an injustice is allowed by the conquering American forces which did not pursue the perpetrators of this horrendous crime against humanity. If you are able to follow this episode further, you can see that some of these doctors from unit 731 who are still alive and are proud of what they "DID" for their country. They all should all be hanged like what they did with the Nazi in Germany. Unfortunately in the interest of knowledge the doctors were spared punishment by the invading American forces.

    Link to this
  3. 3. way2ec 3:51 am 10/2/2010

    Unethical is hardly a strong enough term with which to condemn this kind of "medical research". It was criminal. Too bad those responsible can’t be taken to justice, nor will their victims ever receive an apology.

    Link to this
  4. 4. MCMalkemus 5:17 am 10/2/2010

    Makes me wonder what government researchers may be up to today under their modern interpretations of ethics?

    Link to this
  5. 5. manuel5sanchez 7:51 am 10/2/2010

    There is a mistake in the information. In the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the researchers NOT infected with syphilis hundreds of poor black men in Macon County, Ala.

    The victims of the Tuskegee experiment were already infected by syphillis when the study begans, because the aim of the study was to observe the development of the disease without treatment. Penicillin was denied to the patients assuring them that it could be fatal due to its condition.


    Link to this
  6. 6. JamesDavis 8:19 am 10/2/2010

    No one can argue with that ‘scientific earthling’. If they could, then all the slaves that was in America – their ancestors would now be given a mule and 40 acres of land. If I have to apologize to you for what my ancestors did years ago – how long will it be before your ancestors would have to apologize to my ancestors for what you are doing to me now? I know that is basic, but it is the same principal.

    Why should you or I apologize to each other for what our ancestors did to each other years ago? If they wait for an apology from me for something my ancestors did, then they would die with old age before they get it.

    Link to this
  7. 7. phil rimmer 10:41 am 10/2/2010

    Apology is the wrong term for what Hilary Clinton was doing. It is appropriate the spokesperson for an organization or government to offer some comment on newly revealed past "wrongdoings" of that organization. The apology part, such as it is, isn’t an assumption of guilt on behalf of any individuals within the organization, but an acknowledgment of the hurt of any individuals who may still be affected directly or indirectly. The major part of the statement is about restoring confidence in the organization and asserting clearly its current values. This message is not only for outsiders but also those inside as well. Such statements are not (mere)apologies but markers of moral improvements.

    If those "wrongdoings" were, even then, illegal and its perpetrators are still alive, such statements are entirely subordinate to the initiation of criminal proceedings.

    "Apology" for well known past wrongdoings from deep history should not be an issue. A government mends its ways through the laws it institutes to remove harm and extend fairness. This is its testament.

    Link to this
  8. 8. RDH 9:57 am 10/3/2010

    Frightening. Not the research. The fact that we are willing to give control of our healthcare to our government.

    Link to this
  9. 9. mapmanic 7:07 pm 10/3/2010

    You know, this is not the place for a psychotic tea party rant.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article