Even more gory details about the macabre experiments that United States scientists conducted on Guatemalan prison and mental hospital inmates between 1946 and 1948 were released this week, including the deaths of 83 of the victims, many of whom were deliberately infected with sexually transmitted diseases.
When archival research by Professor Susan Reverby of Wellesley College revealed last October that vulnerable Guatemalans had been clandestinely infected with STDs such as syphilis, gonorrhoea, and chancroid, U.S. President Barack Obama had issued an apology to Guatemala's President Alvaro Colom.
Further, he ordered a bipartisan Presidential Bioethics Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to look into the experiments, a process that is nearly complete.
The latest details about the experiments were discussed with media by members of the Commission ahead of the inquiry being wound up. Stephen Hauser, a member of the Commission, said with at least 5,500 prisoners, mental patients, soldiers and children being drafted into the experiments, around 1,300 individuals were exposed to venereal diseases by human contact or inoculations in research meant to test the drug penicillin and that within that group, “we believe that there were 83 deaths”.
Particularly chilling was the case of a terminally-ill woman who had gonorrhoea-infected pus poured into her eyes. She died six months later. In another case, seven women with epilepsy were injected with syphilis below the back of the skull, said to be a risky procedure. All the women contracted bacterial meningitis.
While head of the Commission Amy Gutmann described the case as “chillingly egregious”, Anita Allen, a member, said: “The researchers put their own medical advancement first and human decency a far second.” “Actually cruel and inhuman conduct took place... These are very grave human rights violations,” she added.
Public anger in the U.S. and Guatemala has been directed in particular towards the late John Cutler, a U.S. Public Health Service medical officer who led the experimentation, and also against the Department of State and the U.S. National Institute of Health for funding and authorising the process.
The experiments were acknowledged by officials to be a gross violation of modern-day bioethics standards. “This is a dark chapter in our history. It is important to shine the light of day on it. We owe it to the people of Guatemala who were experimented on, and we owe it to ourselves to recognise what a dark chapter it was,” said Ms. Gutmann.
Last year officials had remarked that the study revived memories of another dark period in U.S. medical ethics — the Tuskegee, Alabama, experiments in which nearly 400 African-American men were infected with syphilis without informed consent. In that case, treatment through Penicillin was not provided.
According to reports, the Guatemalan government is conducting its own investigation into the experiments, including whether they had been approved by some Guatemalan officials.