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.
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.