The Guatemala Syphilis Experiment’s Tuskegee Roots

Recent revelations that the U.S. government knowingly infected Central Americans with syphilis in the 1940s have eerie echoes to the infamous 40-year experiment with 400 infected black men in Macon County, Ala. As it turns out, this is no coincidence.

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On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized for a diabolical human experiment conducted in Central America 64 years ago and engineered by the U.S. government. From 1946 to 1948, scientists deliberately infected Guatemalan research subjects with syphilis to study how well penicillin worked.

Sound familiar?

It should. This experiment is eerily similar to the notorious 40-year Tuskegee Study that used African-American men as human lab rats. Beginning in the 1930s in Macon County, Ala., the U.S. government left more than 400 syphilis-infected black men untreated to study the course of the disease. The men, who suffered from the often debilitating, sometimes deadly late-stage form of the sexually transmitted disease, thought they were getting free medical care for “bad blood.” They were never told that they were actually subjects being followed in a long-term, “no treatment” study that finally ended in 1972. The men, poor and uneducated, were also given free meals and promised money for burials if they allowed their bodies to be autopsied after they died.

The other Clinton, former President Bill, officially apologized for the Tuskegee Study in 1997. Surrounded by survivors and their family members, he called the experiment “deeply, profoundly, morally wrong, something Americans prefer not to remember but dare not forget.” Miss Evers’ Boys, a 1997 Emmy Award-winning HBO film starring Alfre Woodard and Laurence Fishburne, brought to life what ethicists and experts continue to refer to as the darkest hour in medical history.

Until now.

Though many believe that the men in the Tuskegee Study were secretly and intentionally infected with syphilis, they weren’t. They already had it. But in the Guatemalan experiment, U.S. government officials did intentionally give subjects the disease. What’s even creepier, the stuff of conspiracy theories, is that the same physician was linked to both the Tuskegee and Guatemala experiments. Dr. John C. Cutler, who rose as high as assistant surgeon general in the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), conducted the study in Guatemala, according to his own records. He was also a key researcher in Tuskegee.

Susan M. Reverby, a Wellesley College professor, unearthed the experiment in Guatemala while working on a follow-up to her 2009 book, Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy. “Public Health Service researchers did, in fact, deliberately infect poor and vulnerable men and women with syphilis in order to study the disease,” Reverby writes in an article that will be published in the January issue of the wonky Journal of Policy History. “The mistake of the myth is to set that story in Alabama, when it took place further south, in Guatemala.” The article is now available on Reverby’s Wellesley faculty page.

In an unusual move in her world, where academics keep their research hush-hush before publication, Reverby alerted the federal government to the case in Guatemala before her work was to appear, which led to yesterday’s apology.