WASHINGTON (AP) – American scientists deliberately infected prisoners and patients in a mental hospital in Guatemala with syphilis 60 years ago, a recently unearthed experiment that prompted U.S. officials to apologize Friday and declare outrage over “such reprehensible research.” The NIH-funded experiment, which ran from 1946 to 1948, was uncovered by a Wellesley College medical historian. It apparently was conducted to test if penicillin, then relatively new, could prevent some sexually transmitted infections. The study came up with no useful information and was hidden for decades. “We are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Friday. President Barack Obama called Guatemala’s president, Alvaro Colom, later Friday to apologize. Clinton had called to apologize the night before. “Obviously this is shocking, it’s tragic, it’s reprehensible,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. “It’s tragic and the U.S. by all means apologizes to all those who were impacted.” Guatemalan Embassy official Fernando de la Cerda said his country hadn’t known anything about the experiment until Clinton called to apologize Thursday night.
Wellesley College historian Susan Reverby made the discovery while combing the archived records of Dr. John Cutler, a government researcher involved in the Tuskegee study that from 1932 to 1972 tracked 600 black men in Alabama who had syphilis without ever offering them treatment.
She discovered that Cutler also led the Guatemala project that went a step further: A total of 696 men and women were exposed to syphilis or in some cases gonorrhea – through jail visits by prostitutes or, when that didn’t infect enough people, by deliberately inoculating them. They were offered penicillin, but it wasn’t clear how many were infected and how many were successfully treated. She reported that the U.S. had gained permission from Guatemalan officials to conduct the study, but did not inform the experimental subjects. A continuing ethical dilemma in developing countries is what Caplan calls the “left-behind syndrome,” when the people who helped test a treatment can never afford the resulting care.