An article written by Susan M. Reverby, a professor of women’s studies at Wellesley College, has uncovered details on a study conducted between 1946 and 1948 in Guatemala, which involved experiments on Guatemalans. Essentially, the Public Health Service (PHS) inoculated people with syphilis.
On RAW STORY, an excerpt from the synopsis of the article explains the same doctor, Dr. John C. Cutler, who would later be part of the Syphilis Study in Alabama in the 1960s (and who would defend the study for two decades until its end in the 1990s), and other physicians:
…“chose men in the Guatemala Penitentiary, then in an army barracks, and men and women in the National Mental Health Hospital for a total of 696 subjects. Permissions were gained from the authorities but not individuals, not an uncommon practice at the time, and supplies were offered to the institutions in exchange for access. The doctors used prostitutes with the disease to pass it to the prisoner (since sexual visits were allowed by law in Guatemalan prisons) and then did direct inoculations made from syphilis bacteria poured onto the men’s penises or on forearms and faces that were slightly abraded when the “normal exposure” produced little disease, or in a few cases through spinal punctures. Unlike in Alabama, the subjects were then given penicillin after they contracted the illness. However, whether everyone was then cured is not clear and not everyone received what was even then considered adequate treatment.
Yet the PHS was aware then that this was a study that would raise ethical questions. For as Surgeon General Thomas Parran made clear “’You know, we couldn’t do such an experiment in this country.”4 Deception was the key here as it had been in Tuskegee. Much of this was kept hushed even from some of the Guatemalan officials and information about the project only circulated in selected syphilology circles. When it proved difficult to transfer the disease and other priorities at home seemed more important, Cutler was told to pack up and come back to the States.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have issued an apology on behalf of the U.S.
Revelations about these experiments likely remind Americans of the Tuskegee Experiments. This involved the Public Health Service enrolling 400 poor black men in a study to see how syphilis spread and killed people. The men that were enrolled were not told they had syphilis but were instead told they had “’bad blood,’ a local term used to describe several illnesses including syphilis, anemia and fatigue.” When the study began, no cure existed for syphilis, but in 1947, penicillin had been discovered to be a “standard cure” for the disease. Despite that, the medication was withheld from the men so the study could continue at the Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Ala.
This report on experiments on Guatemalans may also lead one to think of what the Nazis did to Jews. It is well known that at Auschwitz and Buchenwald the Nazis engaged in human experimentation. Dr. Josef Mengele is remembered for experimenting on around 1,500 sets of twins (only 100 survived).
It may seem like there is no Nazi connection between what happened in Guatemala and what the Nazis did to the Jews. However, revoltingly, a footnote reference, which Raw Story cites in its write-up on these revealed experiments, explains how experimentation was boosted by what happened with the Nazis:
“…Ironically, the biggest boost to such experimentation came as a result of the postwar Nuremberg trial of 20 Nazi doctors, which gave rise to the Nuremberg Code, a set of principles intended to prohibit human experimentation without subjects’ consent. When defense lawyers implied that American scientists had conducted wartime research analogous to that of the Nazis, one prosecution witness, Andrew C. Ivy, cited malaria experiments involving Illinois prisoners as an example of "ideal," noncoercive research. Ivy’s 1948 publication of his conclusions helped to institutionalize prison experimentation for the next quarter-century.”
In other words, Americans made certain future human experimentation was “ideal” and that was how they made their experiments seem different from the Nazi doctors who were clearly responsible for the butchering of human life.
Reverby’s article provides details of human experiments in American prisons:
“In 1944 the PHS had done experiments on prophylaxis in gonorrhea at the Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary in the United States. In this prison, the “volunteers” were deliberately injected with gonorrhea (which can be cultured), but the PHS had found it difficult to get the men to exhibit infection and the study was abandoned.”
This was often done without the consent of prisoners.
Today, we may think we have abandoned practices of human experimentation that doctors and scientists sought to use to make advancements in medical science. The awful truth is that America has conducted experiments on detainees captured in the “war on terror” and experimented on them to figure out what torture and abuse causes “pain” and what doesn’t and how long human beings can tolerate it before permanent damage is done to a human being.
On August 6, it was reported that during interrogations physicians were present to document the effects of torture. They were brought in to determine what the risks of waterboarding were to human beings. They understood that drowning, hypothermia, aspiration pneumonia, or laryngospasm could result from waterboarding but intentionally ignored “clinical experience/research” and assured lawyers “there was no ‘medical reason’ to believe that waterboard [would] lead to physical pain.”
The doctors actually went so far as to recommend adding salt to the water so patients would not experience hyponatremia, “a condition of low sodium levels in the blood caused by free water intoxication.”
This was detailed in a report published by the group, Physicians for Human Rights, and more can be read about what the report detailed here.
How does a society explain the continued existence of organizations and entities within government and society, which find it permissible to allow individuals to experiment on humans? That find it allowable to create excuses for such experimentation?
I posit it has everything to do with who the subjects are. Those aware of history know America was afraid of leftist movements taking power in Guatemala and threatening American interests. Blacks were suffering under Jim Crow Laws when the Tuskegee Experiments were carried out. Felons in prisons were criminals and understandably considered the lowest of humans on Earth. And, of course, the detainees at Guantanamo and other prisons are and have been regarded as "terrorists."
When humans dehumanize other humans, any form of brutality can be committed. Any callous act can be carried out.
It isn’t just that there are a few bad apples that produce these atrocious episodes in American history. As Philip Zimbardo would likely suggest, systems in place – political, economical, and legal – turn people into monsters.
Americans can shrug off revelations of torture and abuse and medical experiments on detainees but, understand, that episode is no anomaly. It will happen again. And, since Americans did not raise their voices loud enough and demand accountability and justice when Bush Administration officials were found to have created legal justification for torture, abuse and medical experimentation, atrocities will likely occur again in the not-so-distant future — atrocities that one can compare to the Tuskegee Experiments and thes new revelations on U.S. experiments on Guatemalans.