ATLANTA – A presidential panel on Monday disclosed shocking new details of U.S. medical experiments done in Guatemala in the 1940s, including a decision to re-infect a dying woman in a syphilis study.
The Guatemala experiments are already considered one of the darker episodes of medical research in U.S. history, but panel members say the new information indicates that the researchers were unusually unethical, even when placed into the historical context of a different era.
“The researchers put their own medical advancement first and human decency a far second,” said Anita Allen, a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.
From 1946-’48, the U.S. Public Health Service and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau worked with several Guatemalan government agencies to do medical research – paid for by the U.S. government – that involved deliberately exposing people to sexually transmitted diseases.
The researchers apparently were trying to see if penicillin, then relatively new, could prevent infections in the 1,300 people exposed to syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid. Those infected included soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners and mental patients.
The commission revealed Monday that only about 700 of those infected received some sort of treatment. Also, 83 people died, although it’s not clear if the deaths were directly due to the experiments.
The research came up with no useful medical information, according to some experts.