Worst Suspicions Prove True: US Health Officials Experimented on Helpless Guatemalans in 1940s


I began working with Guatemalan refugees on Long Island back in 1980. They were fleeing persecution growing out of a civil war that had begun two decades earlier. Ultimately a quarter of a million Guatemalans would be killed in what the UN Truth Commission, which examined the killing of civilians there, would describe as a genocide.

The Guatemalans I talked to told me about the massacres committed by the US-armed Guatemalan military, and about how the CIA had overthrown the country’s elected government back in the 1950s, condemning the homeland of the Mayas to two generations of dictatorship. They also spoke to me in confused tones about rumors that the United States used Guatemalans as guinea pigs in medical experiments.

None of the people who told me these stories had been experimented on themselves, nor had they seen the experiments or spoken directly with the alleged victims. They weren’t sure when these experiments had happened or where. I asked medical workers who had provided aid in Guatemala about this. They too had heard the stories, but had seen no evidence.

After months of looking into this, I concluded that the Guatemalan refugees—traumatized by what the United States government had done in arming a murderous army— were willing to believe that our government was capable of any outrage.

Today’s New York Times reveals that, while the specifics of what the refugees told me was wrong, the Guatemalan horror stories were based in fact.

Here is the lede of the Times article:

Gruesome details of American-run venereal disease experiments on Guatemalan prisoners, soldiers and mental patients in the years after World War II were revealed this week during hearings before a White House bioethics panel investigating the study’s sordid history.

The U.S. Public Health Service conducted dangerous experiments on Guatemalan mental patients and jailed prisoners, deliberately infecting 1,300 Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases.

Here is the story of Bertha, a mental patient subjected to experimentation:

The most offensive case, said John Arras, a bioethicist at the University of Virginia and a panelist, was that of a mental patient named Berta.

She was first deliberately infected with syphilis and, months later, given penicillin. After that, Dr. John C. Cutler of the Public Health Service, who led the experiments, described her as so unwell that she “appeared she was going to die.” Nonetheless, he inserted pus from a male gonorrhea victim into her eyes, urethra and rectum. Four days later, infected in both eyes and bleeding from the urethra, she died.

“I really do believe that a very rigorous judgment of moral blame can be lodged against some of these people,” Dr. Arras said.

In other cases, epileptic women in a home for the insane were injected with syphilis.

“This was a very dark chapter in the history of medical research sponsored by the U.S. government,” said Amy Gutmann, who chairs the ethics panel and in the president of the University of Pennsylvania, in the Times article. Some members of the panel compared it to experiments carried out by the Nazis.

Panelist Anita L. Allen said that the Guatemalan victims were chosen because they were “powerless.”

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