Sixty-four years after a U.S.-funded scientist ran an experiment that infected his Guatemalan patients with syphilis, the U.S. government today issued a formal apology to the Central American nation. The scandal, which had been buried in the records of a U.S. Public Health Service researcher, is documented in work released by a historian at Wellesley College, Susan Reverby.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins called the research described in Reverby's report "deeply disturbing" and "an appalling example from a dark chapter in the history of medicine." He added that U.S. regulations today "would absolutely prohibit this type of study"
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also called Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom last night to express her regret. She issued a joint apology with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius this morning.
The results of the Guatemalan research—which Clinton described as "reprehensible"—were never published. The case only came to light when Reverby found the records of John Cutler, a former U.S. Public Health Service scientist, buried in the archives of the University of Pittsburgh. They told the story of a man who devoted his life to conquering sexually transmitted diseases and led a 2-year effort in Guatemala to monitor and treat syphilis and gonorrhea. In the 1940s, when it seemed that penicillin was successfully rooting out syphilis in the United States, Cutler worried that simply relying on the pill after the disease had been diagnosed wasn't enough. He wanted to test out various other chemicals people could apply right after having sex that would prevent the disease entirely. To do that, of course, he needed newly infected patients.