Scientific Practice Gone Wrong: United States Apologizes for 1940’s Syphilis Study in Guatemala

guatemalaresizedBy The Amir Khalessi Foundation News Staff

WASHINGTON, D.C.- The Obama Administration apologized to Alvaro Colom, the President of Guatemala for a recently declassified human rights violation that American health officials committed in the 1940’s.

In a human experiment that took place between 1946 and 1949, American officials knowingly infected Guatemalan men and women with syphilis. Though the end goal of the experiment was to test the hypothesis regarding penicillin’s effect on syphilis, the process by which the experiment was executed stirs up enormous controversy:

“In an effort to see if penicillin could or treat syphilis, government scientists went to the impoverished Central American country to deliberately infect nearly 700 men and women” (ABC News).

The victims of this experiment included “prisoners, inmates in insane asylums, and even soldiers,” individuals who were manipulated into complying with an abusive experiment:

“The evidence is clear that [the subjects] didn’t know,” says Susan Reverby, the professor at Wellesley College who uncovered the experiment, on ABC News. “The authorities were told something, but the people didn’t know,” she said.

The Amir Khalessi Foundation interviewed Professor Reverby and discussed her thoughts on lessons we can learn from this controversial experiment.

The Amir Khalessi Foundation: “Do you believe that the syphilis study was simply an exception in the history of American scientific practice?”

Professor Reverby: “I think this particular study was outside the usual norms, even for that time.   For more on the context of the times you might want to look at my book Examining Tuskegee.”

The Amir Khalessi Foundation: What are your thoughts on the current standards of ethical scientific practice in the United States?

Professor Reverby: “I think we are in a much better place now that rules and regulations are in place. But this always needs reconsidering, especially with international research.”

The method by which researchers infected these victims raises further questions about historical standards for ethical scientific practice. “The researchers used prostitutes to infect the men and hypodermic needles to infect the women,” says Ron Claiborne from ABC News.

Learning from this newfound human rights violation, however, requires scientists and lawmakers alike to scrutinize the United States’ current scientific practices. Though the ability to cover up mass human experimentation would seem rather difficult in our information age, a thorough examination of our society’s scientific practices is key for making sure that we don’t repeat past injustices.


Susan M. Reverby is the Marion Butler McLean Professor in the History of Ideas and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College.

Claiborne, Ron. “US Apologizes for 1940s STD Study that Infected Guatemalans with Syphillis.” ABC News. 1 October 2010. Accessed on 1 October 2010.

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