The Guatemala Syphilis Study – Another Sad Chapter in Medical Research. Next?

Earlier this week, the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues announced it had concluded its investigation into venereal disease research conducted by U.S. scientists in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948.  Part of the research, which was funded by the United States’ Public Health Service, involved infecting approximately 1,300 Guatemalans with syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid.  According to the PCSBI, the research “participants,” or victims, consisted largely of “people in mental institutions, prisoners, commercial sex workers, and members of the Guatemala army” — i.e, vulnerable populations who were not in a position to object to the research, and whom researchers may have viewed as undeserving of consideration.

As the New York Times relates, at hearings earlier this week PCSBI panelist John Arras described the treatment of one mental patient in the study:

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.

(Arras went on to express, in an oddly tepid pronouncement, that he “really do[es] believe that a very rigorous judgment of moral blame can be lodged against some of these people.”  Do tell.)  To add insult to injury, the “research” apparently produced no valuable scientific knowledge.  The Times reports that “[t]he results were never published in medical journals, note-keeping was ‘haphazard at best’ and routine protocols were not done,” which would seem to render the researchers’ activities little more than torture, and possibly murder.

President Obama has apologized to Guatemalan President for the studies, and the PCSBI will release a report — presumably expressing “a very rigorous judgment of moral blame” — later this month.  One can only hope that such egregious violations of human dignity by scientists are a thing of the past.  But notwithstanding the bioethical infrastructure that has been developed over the past several decades to protect research subjects, sixty years hence observers may look back on our contemporary research practices with an equal measure of amazement and disgust.  Which practices?  I would welcome your ideas and predictions.  My guess: our treatment of animals in scientific research.

Matt Lamkin
Twitter: @lawbioethics