Picking through musty files in a Pennsylvania archive, a Wellesley College professor made a heart-stopping discovery: US government scientists in the 1940s deliberately infected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis and gonorrhea in experiments conducted without the subjects’ permission.
Medical historian Susan M. Reverby happened upon the documents four or five years ago while researching the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study and later shared her findings with US government officials.
The unethical research was not publicly disclosed until yesterday, when President Obama and two Cabinet secretaries apologized to Guatemala’s government and people and pledged to never repeat the mistakes of the past — an era when it was not uncommon for doctors to experiment on patients without their consent.
Even so, Reverby found in the files a story of almost singular exploitation and deception, conducted in a foreign land because, the nation’s surgeon general at the time acknowledged, it could not have been done in the United States.
“I was just completely blown away,’’ Reverby said in an interview. “I was floored.’’
In Tuskegee, scientists knew African-American sharecroppers had become infected with syphilis but withheld treatment, in the name of tracking the progression of the disease. In Guatemala, prisoners, soldiers, and inmates in mental asylums were willfully infected, sometimes by using prostitutes provided by the scientists, sometimes by pouring the germs onto skin abrasions the researchers caused.
The US scientists — who had received the blessings of Guatemalan health authorities — were among the leading lights in the field of sexually transmitted disease research. Flush with optimism in the dawning era of antibiotic treatment, they decided to expose vulnerable subjects to further their understanding of the effectiveness of the new drugs in treating sexually transmitted diseases. From 1946 to 1948, they tested their theories on about 1,500 Guatemalans; most who became infected received treatment, but at least one died.
Yesterday, Obama called President Álvaro Colom Caballeros of Guatemala to apologize, and Obama’s spokesman told reporters the experiment was “tragic, and the United States by all means apologizes to all those who were impacted by this.’’
Obviously, we know about the Tuskegee experiment, but with this revelation, it's hard not to wonder what other populations have been experimented on by the American government without their consent.