US Doctors Infected Hundreds of Guatemalans with Syphilis–And Concealed the Evidence

By Valerie Ross | September 14, 2011 4:34 pm

Last fall, it came to light that researchers had infected 700 Guatemalan soldiers, prisoners, and mental patients with syphilis in a US Public Health Service study between 1946 and 1948. The American government apologized  for these “abhorrent” practices, and promised to investigate what had happened. A White House bioethics commission released its report on the study this Tuesday—and as horrific as the experiments sounded initially, the full story is even worse.

The studies were approved by an astonishing list of government, military, and academic public health and legal experts, the report shows, including the surgeon general; this was sanctioned, government-backed research, not a couple scientists going rogue. The researchers performed diagnostic tests on a total of 5,500 people, the report notes, and infected a total of 1,300, including schoolchildren, with syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections.  The report also details evidence that the researchers knew this work wasn’t ethically above board, including the publication of the Nuremberg Code governing medical ethics in 1947, and the fact that they’d asked for subjects’ informed consent in a similar study in the US, but did not do so in Guatemala. “They thought that they were above the rules, and went to some lengths to shield themselves from normal institutionally imposed scrutiny,” the committee wrote [pdf]. Perhaps most chilling are the details the report gleans from the researchers’ own notes, such as the scientists’ disappointment at not being able to surreptitiously infect women during routine exams, the use of needles on multiple patients without sterilization, and anecdotes of patients who fled or resisted infection.

Read more at the New York Times, New Scientist, and the Nature News Blog.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Joe S.

    And, these guys and gals are like the rest of present day authoritative society, saying what, they don’t need regulation. They can just honestly and virtuously regulate themselves?? Seems like there are more needs for more commissions to overlook these fellows to say the least of this. And to think what, they try and carry the banner for what they say are the real Americans that really value the ideals, I don’t think so. Throw them in jail, and let everyone else know we at least well know about the Nuremberg code, and it’s enforced to the hilt!!!

  • Jerrad Gahagan

    Wow, how could anyone agree to such a thing?

  • Dave in Calif

    Our “greatest generation” it seems has befallen on hard times….


  • Moe

    “Well, yes sir, I suppose it is unethical…But they’re only Guatemalans.”

    “Hello. We’re from the U.S.A. and we’re here to help.”

  • marshall

    “Wow, how could anyone agree to such a thing?”

    That’s easy – racism (and, maybe a bit of classism). They didn’t count, not being “like us.”

  • mxtb

    We are applying modern day values to events that happened 65 years ago. What led them to believe they could do this? Look back 130 years to find out.

    Question: lessons learned?


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