If you've ever needed penicillin to rescue you from an indiscretion, you owe a debt to the victims of an unconscionable action by U.S. medical researchers.
The United States apologized on Friday for an experiment conducted in the 1940s in which U.S. government researchers deliberately infected Guatemalan prison inmates, women and mental patients with syphilis.
In the experiment, aimed at testing the then-new drug penicillin, inmates were infected by prostitutes and later treated with the antibiotic.
"The sexually transmitted disease inoculation study conducted from 1946-1948 in Guatemala was clearly unethical," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.
"Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health. We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices," the statement said.
The experiment, which echoed the infamous 1960s Tuskegee study in which black American men were deliberately left untreated for syphilis, was revealed by Susan Reverby, professor of women's studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
The Congressional Black Caucus reacted. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and U.S. Virgin Islands Delegate Donna Christensen, co-chair of the Health and Wellness Taskforce, said in a released statement lauding the apology:
"This revelation is a stark reminder of the ‘dark days’ of medicine when many then revered physician-scientists thought nothing of using African Americans and foreigners for experimentation with devastating consequences to those victims.
"Even today, the memories of Tuskegee Syphilis Study are reinforced by the discrimination many people of color continue to experience, fueling mistrust of the healthcare system among those who need it most."
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is senior editor-at-large of The Root and a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based editorial consultant. Follow her on Twitter.