A U.S. President’s Administration Infected People with a Deadly Disease and Killed Dozens

A U.S. President’s Administration Infected People with a Deadly Disease and Killed Dozens

Patrick Lynch - July 17, 2017

Between 1946 and 1948, scientists from the United States were responsible for the deaths of 83 people who were the subjects of syphilis experiments. The experiments took place during Harry Truman’s administration and were also backed by the President of Guatemala, Juan Jose Arevalo. Doctors infected patients with the disease, without the consent of the subjects, and treated them with antibiotics. Ultimately, at least 83 people died although the true figure is probably higher. The United States formally apologized for the sorry experiment in 2010.

An Era of Questionable Studies

In the modern era, there are strict regulations in place which outline that it is unethical to experiment on people without their knowledge and consent. Also, there are guidelines in place when dealing with ‘vulnerable’ populations such as people with a mental illness. Alas, there were no such protections available in the 1940s and the likes of John Charles Cutler took full advantage. Cutler was a U.S. Public Health Service doctor, and he led the now infamous Guatemalan syphilis experiment.

Cutler was already accustomed to conducting tests of this nature. He was involved in the experiments in Terre Haute in 1943 and 1944 where he injected prisoners with gonorrhea. It was part of a study to find out the efficacy of treatments for sexually transmitted diseases. A total of 241 prisoners agreed to participate and received $100, a certificate of merit and a letter of commendation to the parole board for their trouble. It was one of approximately 40 deliberate infection studies conducted in the U.S. during the era.

A U.S. President’s Administration Infected People with a Deadly Disease and Killed Dozens
Cutler when involved in the Tuskegee experiment. psmag

An Unethical Approach

Although the thought of being deliberately infected with gonorrhea is appalling, at least the prisoners in Indiana agreed to take part. The same cannot be said for those involved in the Guatemala debacle. A large number of people were deliberately infected with syphilis and gonorrhea, but unlike the Terre Haute prisoners, these men and women had no idea they were involved in an experiment.

The American research team received permission from the various Guatemalan institutions and facilities that provided the subjects but neither those who were infected nor their families were informed. In actual fact, the researchers used incredibly devious and deceptive means to infect the subjects.

The scientists compensated the prisons and institutions involved in the study with supplies such as anti-seizure medication, fridges to store the drugs, metal cups, plates and forks, and a motion picture projector to provide entertainment to the inmates. Technically, the subjects received compensation of sorts; prisoners were plied with cigarettes for example. They would get one cigarette if they agreed to clinical observation and an entire packet for allowing the researchers to inoculate, draw blood or carry out a spinal tap. If the process of deliberately infecting people with diseases is bad enough, the lengths to which the researchers went to meet their goal was absolutely appalling.

A U.S. President’s Administration Infected People with a Deadly Disease and Killed Dozens
Major companies accused of knowingly infecting patient. commondreams

They Used Prostitutes; Didn’t They?

The research team took full advantage of the fact that prostitution in Guatemala was legal. Furthermore, penal institutions allowed prostitutes to come in and visit prisoners. The warden of Guatemala City’s Central Penitentiary and the nation’s Ministry of Justice cooperated with the research team and allowed prostitutes to visit inmates. There was a total of 1,500 prisoners in the jail and prostitutes infected with gonorrhea or were permitted to pleasure the prisoners and pass on the disease. Worse still, the study was paid for by the United States taxpayer.

Unsurprisingly, this method was only useful for a short while before it ran into problems. Cutler decided to isolate syphilis and directly inoculate prisoners with it. The researchers used the syphilitic growths on the testicles of infected rabbits or the penile chancres of men who were infected. Then they isolated the spirochete that caused the illness. This was a difficult process since the spirochete only lasted a maximum of 90 minutes outside the body. During this timeframe, the team had to isolate the spirochete, place it in broth and deliver it to the unwitting subjects.

A number of the officials and patients involved in the experiment either knew or suspected that it was unethical. As a result, Cutler and his team had to lie to the relevant parties. He confessed that: “This double talk keeps me hopping at time.” Sadly, Cutler’s attitude was not unusual for the age. There were many scientists who believed that the only way to make a breakthrough was to bend or even break the law.

Thomas Rivers of New York’s Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research Hospital openly admitted to this fact in his 1967 memoirs. He pointed out that while injecting someone with infectious material is a felony in New York; he was allowed test out live yellow fever vaccine. Rivers claimed that the state’s Department of Health knew what he was doing but turned a blind eye.

The Results of the Experiment

It is difficult to determine precisely what happened because the results of the experiment were never published. It is likely that around 1,308 people were involved and most of the subjects were healthy men deliberately infected with syphilis, a disease that is potentially fatal if left untreated. The goal of the experiment was apparently to see how effective penicillin was in treating and preventing venereal diseases.

The oldest participant was 72 while the youngest was apparently only 10 years old. It wasn’t just prisoners that were infected; soldiers, prostitutes, and people with a mental health condition were also infected, and only 52% received treatment for the disease. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues believes that at least 83 people died in total although they could not ascertain whether or not the infections were directly responsible.

The study probably ended in 1948 because penicillin was deemed too expensive plus Cutler was growing concerned that the experiment could be exposed. There was some follow-up observation and lab testing in the early 1950s. The entire mess was covered up and may not have become global news if not for the determination of a medical historian.

A U.S. President’s Administration Infected People with a Deadly Disease and Killed Dozens
Guatemala’s President Alvaro Colom at a press conference in Guatemala City in October 2010. Public Radio International

The Experiment is Finally Exposed

In 2005, Professor Susan Mokotoff Reverby of Wellesley College discovered evidence of this unfortunate period in scientific research history. She uncovered Cutler’s research while looking for information on his involvement in the infamous Tuskegee experiment for a book. Her work was initially reported by NBC News, and she posted a copy of an article she wrote on the subject that was later published in an academic journal. She also altered government officials to the findings in a speech in 2010.

Naturally, her findings prompted outrage in the United States and Guatemala. In 2011, the Guatemalan vice president, Rafael Estrada, said that the government wanted to make a formal apology to the people because local doctors were involved in the scandal. He also said that the nation wanted to share the tragedy with the entire world. The American President at the time, Barack Obama, set up the Commission after Reverby’s research came to light.

He apologized to the Guatemalan President, Alvaro Colom, and said the scandal was contrary to American values. The Commission released a report which concluded that the experiments involved basic violations of ethics. Seven plaintiffs filed a federal class action lawsuit against the U.S. Government in March 2011. They claimed damages for the Guatemalan experiments, but a judge threw out the case by saying the United States Government could not be held liable for actions that took place outside the country.

Another lawsuit was filed in April 2015, this time against the Rockefeller Foundation and Johns Hopkins University. A total of 774 plaintiffs claimed $1 billion worth of damages and took their case to the state court of Maryland. However, a judge dismissed this claim in 2016.

The Tuskegee Scandal

The Guatemalan syphilis scandal is by no means the only case of science ignoring the boundaries of ethics. The infamous Tuskegee Syphilis experiment began in 1932; its goal was to observe the natural progression of the disease in African-American men in Alabama. The scientists used a ruse to get what they wanted; they told the subjects that they were benefiting from free health care.

The study involved African-American sharecroppers; 399 had the disease already, and 201 did not. The men received free meals, medical care, and funeral expenses but when the study lost funding for treatment, the study continued, and the researchers failed to tell their subjects that they would not be cured.

It was an exceedingly immoral study because none of the men were told that they had the disease nor were they given a cure; a particularly egregious breach of ethics since it became known that penicillin was a cure during the lengthy study. The experiment continued until 1972 when a whistleblower tipped off the press, and the study finally ended on November 16. By then, 28 men had died from the disease, 100 died from related complications, 40 of their wives caught syphilis, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.