By JUDI CHENG
On October 1, 2010, the U.S. government apologized for a human medical experiment that occurred nearly 64 years ago. From 1946 to 1948 the United States secretly funded an experiment to study the effects of penicillin, an antibiotic*, on soldiers, people with mental illnesses and prisoners in Guatemala, a country in central America.
During the experiment, U.S. government scientists infected almost 700 people in Guatemala with sexually transmitted diseases including syphilis. If left untreated, syphilis can damage the heart, aorta, brain, eyes and bones. The experiments were carried out without the subjects’ permission. Although the subjects were given treatment for the diseases, it is not known whether everyone was cured.
The leader of the experiment at the time, Dr. John Cutter, was also responsible for the famous Tuskegee experiments in Tuskegee, Alabama. From 1932 to 1972, 399 Black men in Alabama with syphilis were left untreated without their knowledge so that the U.S. government could track the spread of the disease.
Medical historian Susan Reverby stumbled upon the study in Guatemala while doing research on the Tuskegee study. She then informed the federal government about the experiments, which led to an official apology.
It is now considered medically unethical (not correct) to experiment upon a person without getting their permission and telling them how their health may be affected. The president of Guatemala, Álvaro Colom, called the U.S. medical experiments in his country “a crime against humanity,” and is calling for investigations into the matter.
Antibiotic: a medicine that kills or stops the growth of bacteria