Shady Science: STD Experiments in 1940s Guatemala

I meant to write about this on Friday, but ended up working all weekend. A report came out last Monday revealing that not only were US Scientists with the Public Health Service involved with STD experiments on Guatemalans from 1946 to 1948, they knew what they were doing was ethically very very very very sketchy/wrong. The experiments came to light back in October, but the report, released at the monthly meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, indicates that these scientists were messing around on a far larger scale than originally thought.

Over 5,500 prisoners, mental patients, soldiers and children were recruited for the experiments, but they weren’t briefed about what they were getting into, as had been done with similar experiments in the US. The report, based on public health records and interviews, says about 1,300 who were exposed to the sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid. Only about 700 were treated for their symptoms. At least 83 died, but there’s no way to directly link their deaths to the experiments.

The goal: to see if taking penicillin immediately after sex prevented STD infection.

The super sketchy bit: no one obtained their consent.

The part that will probably gross you out the most: Infection methods included bringing subjects to prostitutes who were already infected and pouring bacteria on open wounds (ick).

Obviously, not quite in line with the Hippocratic oath.

However, I should note that trials involving mental patients, prisoners, and soldiers to figure out how to manage and cure STDs like the syph and especially malaria were not uncommon in the 1940s. Why? Because these diseases killed more soldiers on both sides in the Pacific than any military weapon. It certainly doesn’t justfy what they did, but Random fact: in some cases malaria was seen as a form of treatment for mentally ill patients because the parasites reduced brain swelling. Obviously, doctors have way better methods of dealing with this stuff today. But, the really striking thing to take away from this is that subjects in the U. S. volunteered and were briefed, whereas those in Guatemala never gave consent. It’s the difference that has gotten everyone in a huff.

Few would argue today that their actions are anything other than reprehensible, but I think it’s interesting that the BBC in particular describes these experiments as ‘Nazi-like’. The US’s claims have always kind of been “We did some sketchy stuff, but nowhere near as sketchy as what the Germans did.”

Crash-course in Nazi scientist bioethics or lack thereof:  In addition to being super racist and nuts, they infected thousands of concentration camp prisoners – including babies – with a variety of diseases from malaria to typhus in an effort to find cures. Klaus Schilling is perhaps one of the most well known. Even before the war, he infected psychiatric patients in Italy with Malaria and claimed (falsely) to have developed a vaccine for the disease. Schilling has some choice mad scientist quotes that mostly justify his actions in the name of scientific advancement.

I’m honestly not sure what’s scarier – a scientist who knows there are moral boundaries and crosses them anyway…or one who has no idea that the boundaries are even there? Weighty stuff.

The Post also has a good piece on the Guatemalan experiments.

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2 thoughts on “Shady Science: STD Experiments in 1940s Guatemala

  1. I feel like they should at least have been instructed not to have sex with anyone after they had be “treated” (aka infected). Otherwise, that probably led to way more STD infections in Guatemala than intended. I wonder if one could trace a current circulating gonorrhea strain back to those Guatemala Experiments. Ick. Nast.

  2. That’s mortifying. On a only slightly related topic – I just saw the new X-Men movie and they have Dr. Schilling working under the nazi’s and doing experiments on mutants, specifically Magneto. I also heard somewhere, I think I read it at the holocaust museum that the nazi doctors did a lot of experimenting on twins to determine genes vs. nature stuff.

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