November 3, 2011

Speaker traces history of research gone awry

Speaker traces history of research gone awry

John Cutler, M.D., a 28-year-old Public Health Service physician, read a New York Times article in 1946 that suggested the next phase of researching whether penicillin could prevent syphilis would involve injecting “living syphilis germs into human bodies,” and that such an experiment was “ethically impossible.”

Nevertheless, he oversaw studies in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948 in which vulnerable populations were exposed and infected with sexually transmitted diseases without the subjects’ consent.

Valerie Bonham, J.D.

Valerie Bonham, J.D.

Valerie Bonham, J.D., executive director of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, spoke in Light Hall last week about the recent release of the presidential report on the Guatemalan studies.

The commission reviewed more than 125,000 pages of documents and completed a fact-finding trip to Guatemala to meet with the country’s own internal investigation committee.

The commission concluded that researchers conducted diagnostic tests including blood draws and spinal taps on some 5,500 Guatemalan prison inmates, psychiatric patients, soldiers, prostitutes, orphans and schoolchildren.

Of those, about 1,300 were deliberately exposed to the sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid. About 700 were treated with antibiotics, records show, although it’s not clear if some were never treated.

The studies came to light in 2010 after a medical historian found notes in the archives of the University of Pittsburgh, where she was researching the infamous Tuskegee study in which Alabama sharecroppers infected with syphilis were left untreated from 1932 to 1972.

Cutler oversaw the Tuskegee study after his work in Guatemala was finished. He was an acting dean at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1960s and died in 2003.

“We failed miserably in this dark chapter of our history,” Bonham said. “The individuals who approved, conducted, facilitated and funded these experiments were morally culpable to various degrees for these wrongdoings. “

Bonham said that the United States did not “shirk its responsibility” for exposing the experiments. “It says something that the U.S., when we learn of wrongs from our past, doesn’t shy away or shove this under the carpet.”

The commission determined that at least 83 subjects died, although it was not clear if the deaths were related to the experimental procedures.

It was also determined three years before the Guatemalan studies that several of the same researchers conducted similar experiments on prison inmates in Terre Haute, Ind., but the prisoners volunteered and gave informed consent.

The same researchers did not seek the subjects’ consent in Guatemala.

The full report, “Ethically Impossible STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948” can be viewed on the commission’s website,