Tuskegee in Guatemala

The news that a US government study in the 1940s involved injecting Guatemalans with syphilis has been circulating, and it makes my stomach turn.

Susan Reverby — the Wellesley historian who uncovered the fiasco — has made the draft paper available on her website: “‘Normal Exposure’ and Inoculation Syphilis: A PHS ‘Tuskegee’ Doctor in Guatemala, 1946-48,” which will be published in the Journal of Policy History in January.

From the introduction:

Policy is often made based on historical understandings of particular events, and the story of the “Tuskegee” Syphilis Study (the Study) has, more than any other medical research experiment, shaped policy surrounding human subjects. The forty-year study of “untreated syphilis in the male Negro” sparked outrage in 1972 after it became widely known, and inspired requirements for informed consent, the protection of vulnerable subjects, and oversight by institutional review boards.

When the story of the Study circulates, however, it often becomes mythical. In truth the United States Public Health Service (PHS) doctors who ran the Study observed the course of the already acquired and untreated late latent disease in hundreds of African American men in Macon County, Alabama. They provided a little treatment in the first few months in 1932 and then neither extensive heavy metals treatment nor penicillin after it proved a cure for the late latent stage of the disease in the 1950s. Yet much folklore asserts that the doctors went beyond this neglect, and that they secretly infected the men by injecting them with the bacteria that causes syphilis. This virally spread belief about the PHS’s intentional infecting appears almost daily in books, articles, talks, letters, websites, tweets, news broadcasts, political rhetoric, and above all in whispers and conversations. It is reinforced when photographs of the Study’s blood draws circulate, especially when they are cropped to show prominently a black arm and a white hand on a syringe that could, to an unknowing eye, be seen as an injection.

Historians of the Study have spent decades now trying to correct the misunderstandings in the public and the academy, and to make the facts as knowable as possible. The story is horrific enough, it is argued, without perpetuating misunderstanding over what really did happen and how many knew about it. What if, however, the PHS did conduct a somewhat secret study whose subjects were infected with syphilis by one of the PHS doctors who also worked in “Tuskegee?” How should this be acknowledged and affect how we discuss historical understandings that drive the need for human subject protection?

(Emphasis added.) And later:

Ironically, though, the mythic version of the “Tuskegee” Study may offer a better picture of mid-century PHS ethics than the seemingly more informed accounts. For Public Health Service researchers did, in fact, deliberately infect poor and vulnerable men and women with syphilis in order to study the disease. The mistake of the myth is to set that story in Alabama, when it took place further south, in Guatemala.

Interestingly, the episode happened during a period of hope in Guatemalan history — one of elections and land reforms, before decades of civil war that followed our overthrow of the democratically elected government:

The United Fruit Company owned and controlled much of Guatemala, the quintessential “banana republic,” in the first half of the 20th century. When the PHS looked to Guatemala for its research in the immediate post-World War II years, it came into the country during the period known for its relative freedoms; between 1944 and the U.S. led CIA coup of the elected government in 1954, there were efforts made at labor protection laws, land reform, and democratic elections. The PHS was part of the effort to use Guatemala for scientific research as they presumed to transfer laboratory materials, skills, and knowledge to Guatemalan public health elite.

And one last tidbit:

In reporting to Cutler after he returned to the States, he explained that he had brought Surgeon General Thomas Parran up to date and that with a “merry twinkle [that] came into his eye…[he] said ‘You know, we couldn’t do such an experiment in this country.’”60

Read the whole thing.


10 2010

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