Today, the U.S. delivered what was described as an “unusual apology” to Guatemala for conducting an experiment in the 1940s in which prisoners, soldiers and mental patients were deliberately infected with syphilis. The news came to light while Wellesley College Professor Susan M. Reverby was researching the Tuskegee episode in the U.S. Reverby immediately shared her discovery with U.S. government officials. The apology was issued within 24 hours of the posting of Reverby’s article:
[P]hysicians chose men in the Guatemala National Penitentiary, then in an army barracks, and men and women in the National Mental Health Hospital for a total of 696 subjects. Permissions were gained from the authorities but not individuals, not an uncommon practice at the time, and supplies were offered to the institutions in exchange for access.
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 made from syphilis bacteria poured onto the men’s penises or on forearms and faces that were slightly abraded when the “normal exposure” produced little disease, or in a few cases through spinal punctures. Unlike in Alabama, the subjects were then given penicillin after they contracted the illness.
However, whether everyone was then cured is not clear and not everyone received what was even then considered adequate treatment.
Reverby explains that the doctors were well aware that their study was ethically questionable. Surgeon General Thomas Parran himself stated, “You know, we couldn’t do such an experiment in this country [U.S.].” Reverby also writes that much of the study was “kept hushed even from some of the Guatemalan officials and information about the project only circulated in selected syphilology circles.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called the studies “clearly unethical.” “We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices,” say Clinton and Sebelius in a press release issued today. Despite the apology, no offer of compensation has been made — though an investigation is being launched “into the specifics of the study.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) echoed the government’s apology, stating “Ours is the greatest nation on Earth, but this activity in the 1940s constitutes one of our deeply darkest moments.”
Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health claims he is aware of more than 40 other studies “where intentional infection took place with ‘completely inadequate informed consent.’”