In September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius issued a joint statement apologizing to the people of Guatemala. The mea culpa addressed the U.S. government’s role in a program that intentionally infected as many as 1,500 Guatemalans with syphilis, chancroid, or gonorrhea from 1946 to 1948.
According to new paper by Susan Reverby, a professor of women’s studies at Wellesley College, government researchers deliberately infected prostitutes with one of the diseases, then allowed them to have sex with prisoners, soldiers, and mental patients. Later the researchers transmitted the diseases with injections into the skin and urethra, and by exposing the subjects’ genitals to infected tissue. The study—spearheaded by the U.S. government with cooperation from the Guatemalan authorities, including that country’s top venereal disease expert—was aimed at evaluating the efficacy of blood tests in detecting the diseases and of penicillin in treating or preventing them.
Reverby discovered the unpublished study while conducting research on the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, begun in 1932, in which government researchers permitted 400 poor, black sharecroppers in Alabama to suffer from the disease into the 1970s, decades after the widespread use of penicillin to treat it. According to Reverby’s report, about one-third of the infected subjects and sex workers in the Guatemala study were never given adequate treatment.