That time the US Public Health Service gave syphilis to over 1000 Guatemalans and told them all to have sex “for science”
What could go wrong?
You hear about people giving STD's to one another, but it's rare to hear about a government giving another country something like syphilis. But these things happen. And not by the hand of any terrorist organization or dictator regime, but by the US's own Public Health Service.
The year was 1946. The United States was fresh out of WWII, basking in post-war peacetime chill, enjoying life at the top of the global food chain.
A dope new antibiotic called penicillin had just been discovered and doctors were learning just how powerful this new drug was. They could use it to treat infected wounds! It could be used to treat certain heart diseases! This was a miracle weapon against bacterial infections!
It didn’t take long for people to figure out that penicillin could also be used to treat STD’s like syphilis. Which got a lot of gears turning inside a lot of heads.
What about prevention? Wondered many. Could this incredible new substance, penicillin, actually protect people from STD’s instead of just being used to treat them? Could it be used to put an end to venereal diseases forever??
Today we know the answers to those questions: No. Definitely not. Pennicillin doesn’t work like that. If you want to prevent STD’s like syphilis, put on cock sock or simply don’t have sex.
However, back in 1946, no one knew that. So when those questions popped into the head of one Dr. John Charles Cutler, he was compelled to put them to the test. And as the acting chief of the venereal disease program in the United States Public Health Service, Cutler had both the power and authority to actually follow through.
But he couldn’t run this grand experiment within the US. What he was planning on doing would definitely violate human rights, ruffle feathers and cause something of a domestic scandal (even back in 1946). Cutler needed to go somewhere the average American wouldn’t care about, somewhere out of the international eye, somewhere remote and third world.
Enter Guatemala. Not yet a tourist destination and tucked in a part of the globe most Americans couldn’t even locate on a map, this remote South American country would be ground-zero for some of the most egregious medical experiments of the 20th century.
The project was co-sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service, the NIH, the Pan American Health Organization and the Guatemalan government (who remained unaware of the details until 2011, when all this came to light). It was never given an official name.
Cutler and his team began by infecting sex workers with syphilis and directing them to have sex with soldiers and prison inmates without protection. Then, as the study progressed, they started directly injecting more and more people with STD's and started using mental hospital patients, as well as prostitutes, soldiers and prisoners. In total, around 1,500 Guatemalans were exposed to syphilis and other STD's like gonorrhea, without consent.
Less than half of those people ever received any form of treatment.
Syphilis, for those who are unfamiliar, is a horrifying disease. Symptoms include: hair loss, skin sores and rashes, strokes, blindness, deafness, personality changes, dementia and, eventually death. And that wasn’t even the only STD that these scientists were infecting people with.
By 1948, when Cutler’s work was finished, 83 Guatemalans lay dead and nearly 800 more were still suffering terribly. But he had the answer to his questions: No. Penicillin cannot be used to prevent STDs. So, he packed his things, collected his team and took off, flying home to Pittsburgh where he would retire comfortably from the US Public Health Service to become the dean of several medical colleges.
And the study? It never saw the light of day. Cutler’s “research” was never published anywhere and, in fact, it was buried like a corpse by the very institution that had funded it. And it remained buried until 2011, when a curious professor of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley College, dug it up on accident.
Susan Reverby was researching another, separate syphilis experiment (notably run by the same man, John Charles Cutler) when she found documents in Cutler’s notes that referenced the Guatemala project. Realizing that this was a dark and unrecognized piece of American history, she brought the documents to the attention of the US Federal government.
At the time, Barak Obama was in office, and upon learning about this insane experiment, he and then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton issued a public (although very belated) apology to the Guatemalan people.
“The people of Guatemala are our close friends and neighbors in the Americas,” the government statement reads. “As we move forward to better understand this appalling event, we reaffirm the importance of our relationship with Guatemala, and our respect for the Guatemalan people, as well as our commitment to the highest standards of ethics in medical research.”
Then-president of Guatemala, Alvaro Colom called the experiments “crimes against humanity.”
Which is a difficult position to argue with. Could you imagine the reaction today, if Russia or China sent scientists to Africa to infect them with STDs on purpose and without consent? There would be absolute international outrage and, likely, some form of military intervention. The US would never allow such abhorrent medical transgressions to conspire! Not on our watch. (Unless, of course, we're the ones committing them.)
And that leads right to the real nut of this strange story: This country is not only capable of committing the same kinds of evil acts we call “reprehensible,” but culpable of having already done so. To think that the US of A gave up on these nefarious ventures and totally abandoned all unethical and immoral enterprises abroad in 1948, is not only naive but simply untrue. Only two years later, the CIA would launch "Operation Midnight Climax," a strange branch of the infamous MK-Ultra experiments that dosed unknowing citizens throughout California with LSD.
What kinds of secret schemes is our government engaged with today? What modern secrets will be released or revealed 60 years from now that will send shivers down the spines of the next generation?
If only we knew. For now all we can do is hope that America isn’t out there secretly slipping other countries sexually transmitted diseases “for science." It would be nice to put that practice behind us.