U.S. Infected Guatemalans With Syphilis During 1940s

Robert Siegel talks with Susan Reverby, professor of women's studies at Wellesley College, about her discovery of a medical experiment conducted by U.S. government scientists in Guatemala in the 1940s. Reverby found that public health officials infected close to 700 Guatemalans with syphilis to see whether the disease could be prevented by penicillin. Reverby came across evidence of the experiment while researching the Tuskegee study.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The U.S. government today apologized for medical experiments it conducted on Guatemalans in the 1940s. The experiments entailed infecting hundreds of people with syphilis to test penicillin, a drug that was still relatively new.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius expressed outrage and deep regret for what they called abhorrent research practices. The White House says President Obama has called Guatemala's president with an apology.

Susan Reverby, professor of women's studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, uncovered these experiments, which were conducted by the Public Health Service. Welcome to the program.

Professor SUSAN REVERBY (Women's Studies, Wellesley College): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, what did the American researchers do?

Prof. REVERBY: They were trying to figure out whether penicillin could cure syphilis before someone showed up with the infection. So, if you think about it a little bit like the morning after pill. So you take the morning after pill because you've had unprotected sex, but you're not pregnant yet.

The idea was to look and see not whether penicillin could cure syphilis, they sort of already knew that. It was whether or not it could be used in a solution or in some other manner to cure somebody before they showed the infection.

SIEGEL: So that required people having sex in which they were exposed to syphilis.

Prof. REVERBY: Well, it required somebody having syphilis. So how do you find people who have syphilis? So, the Public Health Service sent a physician named John Cutler to work with a Guatemalan physician named Juan Funes, and they started off doing the research first in the prison, the major penitentiary in Guatemala City because prostitution was legal and because bringing a prostitute in to sexually service men in the penitentiary was also legal.

So the first thing they did was to find prostitutes who were already infected and let them come in and have sex with the men. If they exhibited the disease, then they gave them the penicillin.

And that didn't create enough people. So then they went on to a larger experiment, in which they actually gave the men in the prison syphilis by making a solution.

It's not easy to do. That's why it's a sexually transmitted disease. You can't grow it in a culture and just give somebody blood. You have to so it was pretty complicated to do it. What they had to do was to abrade or, you know, scrape either their arms, their faces. They tried them in different places. They also tried it on their penises.

And they put an inoculum or a solution of the bacteria that causes syphilis on a piece of cotton, and then they held it in place for an hour and a half to two hours. And then they hoped that the people would become infected, and then they would try and cure them.

SIEGEL: The doctor, Dr. Cutler...

Prof. REVERBY: Right.

SIEGEL: ...who's the American doctor, he's connected to what later happened at Tuskegee in syphilis experiments.

Prof. REVERBY: That's correct. This is 20 years before he goes to work in Tuskegee. He's involved as a physician in the Tuskegee study. But the difference between these two is really, really important.

In Guatemala, they were giving people syphilis. In Tuskegee, the men already had the disease. In Guatemala, they were attempting to see if they could treat them with penicillin. In the Tuskegee study, the attempt was to keep people from treatment.

SIEGEL: Sins of medical commission in Guatemala, sins of omission in Tuskegee.

Prof. REVERBY: That's correct.

SIEGEL: If I understand what happened here, you were researching Tuskegee and Dr. Cutler, Tuskegee already being a horribly notorious moment in American public health history, and you discovered something even more horrible.

Prof. REVERBY: Yes. It was unbelievable. I mean, I was sitting in the archives in Pittsburgh, and I almost fell over. I mean, I completely almost fell over.

And on the other hand, what it helps is one of the myths about Tuskegee is, of course, that the men were given syphilis by the government. And I felt, well, at least what I have here is absolute proof that this is not what happened in Tuskegee.

SIEGEL: The White House said that President Obama today apologized to the president of Guatemala. There were Guatemalan health officials who were active, who were involved in this, you say.

Prof. REVERBY: Oh, absolutely. This was not like the United States just coming in. This is a period where there were relative, one of the few periods of relative democracy within Guatemala. This was really done because they thought it would help the growth of the infrastructure for the control of sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala.

They really thought they were doing the right thing. I think that's the important thing to see. Cutler should not be seen as a monster. It should be important to think about what happens when we all get carried away with the kind of research we're doing.

I think one thing that's interesting here is if you use a metaphor of war all the time, then you think of the patients as your soldiers, and you have the right to do whatever you need to do to win.

SIEGEL: You're reminding us of what Susan Sontag wrote about war as metaphor of illness that you start dehumanizing people.

Prof. REVERBY: That's right, precisely. It's one of the reasons we need institutional review boards, and we need non-physicians and non-researchers on these kinds of boards to oversee the research.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Reverby, thank you very much for talking with us and for your research.

Prof. REVERBY: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's Susan Reverby, professor of women's studies at Wellesley College.

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