What Was The Guatemala Syphilis Study?

By Antonia Čirjak on July 14 2020 in History

Today, we take the advancements we managed to achieve in medicine for granted.
Today, we take the advancements we managed to achieve in medicine for granted.
  • The Guatemala syphilis study was a series of experiments conducted in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948. These experiments were led by the United States and were performed on humans.
  • The person in charge of these gruesome experiments was John Charles Cutler, a physician known for participating in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
  • The people chosen to be test subjects were Guatemalan soldiers, prisoners, mental patients, and prostitutes, and they were infected with the disease without consenting to it.
  • Many soldiers consorted with prostitutes during World War II, and a large number of them contracted various STDs, and syphilis was the most common among them. This is why medical researchers were given the task of finding ways to prevent the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases.

Today, we take the advancements we managed to achieve in medicine for granted. However, throughout history, humans performed all kinds of experiments to find a cure for some diseases. Some of these experiments were highly unethical, and the Guatemala syphilis study was one of them.

The Guatemala syphilis study was a series of experiments conducted in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948. These experiments were led by the United States and were performed on humans. The person in charge of these gruesome experiments was John Charles Cutler, a physician known for participating in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. The method used in these experiments was to simply infect people with syphilis, which resulted in more than 83 deaths. 

The Test Subjects

The people chosen to be test subjects were Guatemalan soldiers, prisoners, mental patients, and prostitutes, and they were infected with the disease without consenting to it. Although the experiments were stopped in 1948, studies involving people from Guatemala continued until 1953. These subjects were not infected with the disease but were still subjected to research since they were among the vulnerable population. The list of subjects included children from orphanages, small towns, and state schools. 

Image credit: thoughtco.com
The people chosen to be test subjects were Guatemalan soldiers, prisoners, mental patients, and prostitutes, and they were infected with the disease without consenting to it.  Image credit: thoughtco.com

The goal of the study was to test how various medications would affect people infected with syphilis. These medications included arsenical drug orvus-mapharsen and antibiotic penicillin. The researchers wanted to see how these drugs would work in the prevention of the symptoms that appear in people with syphilis. The study population consisted of over 5,500 people from Guatemala. It is estimated that one-quarter of these test subjects were infected with syphilis, but also other diseases, including chancroid and gonorrhea. The others were enrolled in the experiment but were not infected. None of the test subjects gave their consent to be in the experiments. 

The Dark Past Of U.S. Medical Research

The reason why this study was deemed necessary was quite ridiculous. Many soldiers consorted with prostitutes during World War II, and a large number of them contracted various STDs, and syphilis was the most common among them. This is why medical researchers were given the task of finding ways to prevent the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases. In the early 1940s, they managed to discover that penicillin successfully removes symptoms of syphilis. Still, they could not determine if it protected the soldiers from STDs in the long run. Also, even though it worked on syphilis, they could not decide whether it would work with other diseases. This led to the proposition of the Guatemala syphilis study.

The study was inspired by various prison experiments but had to come up with multiple ways of actually inflicting test subjects with the disease. They used many different methods in the Guatemala study, including “normal exposure,” which involved infected sex workers that were forced to transmit the disease to soldiers who had no clue what was happening. Despite the large scale of the study, it did not manage to produce satisfying results. 

The study remained unknown until the early 2000s when professor Susan Mokotoff Reverby discovered them. These experiments were highly unethical, and a formal apology was issued by U.S. President Barack Obama, his Secretary of State, and Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2010. The ethical violations of infecting innocent people with sexually transmitted diseases deserve to be judged, and the government of Guatemala has condemned these experiments. They named it a crime against humanity and have filed a lawsuit because of it. 

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