The New York Times reports on a gruesome taxpayer-financed, government-run venereal disease experiment run shortly after World World II:
From 1946 to 1948, American taxpayers, through the Public Health Service, paid for syphilis-infected Guatemalan prostitutes to have sex with prisoners. When some of the men failed to become infected through sex, the bacteria were poured into scrapes made on the penises or faces, or even injected by spinal puncture.
About 5,500 Guatemalans were enrolled, about 1,300 of whom were deliberately infected with syphilis, gonorrhea orchancroid. At least 83 died, but it was not clear if the experiments killed them. About 700 were treated with antibiotics, records showed; it was not clear if some were never treated.
The stated aim of the study was to see if penicillin could prevent infection after exposure. But the study's leaders changed explanations several times.
So scientists relying on federal funding did terrible, brutal things in the name of the larger public good, and tried to justify it using ever-shifting explanations? Surely, though, the researchers involved didn't know that what they were doing was unethical…right?
…Dr. Cutler's team took pains to keep its activities hidden from what one of the researchers described as "goody organizations that might raise a lot of smoke."
Members of the bioethics commission recalled Nazi experiments on Jews and said that Dr. Cutler, who died in 2003, must have known from the Nuremberg doctors' trials under way by 1946 that his work was unethical.
Also, according to Dr. Gutmann, Dr. Cutler had read a brief article in The New York Times on April 27, 1947, about other syphilis researchers — one of them from his own agency — doing tests like his on rabbits. The article stated that it was "ethically impossible" for scientists to "shoot living syphilis germs into human bodies." His response, Dr. Gutmann said, was to order stricter secrecy about his work.
Radley Balko noted research on the experiment here.
[Link via John Goodman.]