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Medical Racism: The Tuskegee and Guatemala Syphilis Studies

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Medical Racism: The Tuskegee and Guatemala Syphilis Studies

A doctor injects Tuskegee Syphilis experiment participant with a placebo.

Wikimedia Commons

Many people have the impression that racism simply involves isolated acts of prejudice. However, the racism that results in long lasting oppression of people from minority backgrounds is typically perpetuated by institutions. People of color have faced institutional racism in housing, education and law, to name a few. Some of the most unsettling examples of institutional racism have involved medicine. In the 20th century, the U.S. government conducted syphilis research on marginalized groups—poor black men in the American South and vulnerable Guatemalan citizens—with disastrous results.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

In 1932 the United States Public Health Service partnered with educational establishment the Tuskegee Institute to study black men with syphilis in Macon County, Ga. Most of the men were poor sharecroppers. By the time the study ended 40 years later, a total of 600 black men had enrolled in the experiment called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” Medical researchers swayed the men to participate in the study by enticing them with “medical exams, rides to and from the clinics, meals on examination days, free treatment for minor ailments and guarantees that provisions would be made after their deaths in terms of burial stipends paid to their survivors,” according to Tuskegee University. There was just one problem: Even when penicillin became the main treatment for syphilis in 1947, researchers neglected to use the medication on the men in the Tuskegee study. In the end, dozens of study participants died and infected their spouses, sexual partners and children with syphilis as well.

The Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs created a panel to review the study and in 1972 determined that it was “ethically unjustified” and that researchers failed to provide participants with “informed consent,” namely that test subjects were to remain untreated for syphilis. In 1973, a class action suit was filed on behalf of the enrollees in the study that resulted in them winning a $9 million settlement. Moreover, the U.S. government agreed to give free medial services to the survivors of the study and their families.

Guatemala Syphilis Experiment

Until 2010 it remained widely unknown that the U.S. Public Health Service and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau partnered with the Guatemalan government to conduct medical research between 1946 and 1948 in which 1,300 Guatemalan prisoners, sex workers, soldiers and mental health patients were intentionally infected with sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid. What’s more, just 700 of the Guatemalans exposed to STDs received treatment. Eighty-three individuals ultimately died from complications that may have been a direct result of the questionable research paid for by the U.S. government to test the effectiveness of penicillin as an STD treatment.

Susan Reverby, a women’s studies professor at Wellesley College, uncovered the U.S. government’s unethical medical research in Guatemala while researching the Tuskegee Syphilis Study of the 1960s in which researchers willfully failed to treat black men with the illness in Alabama. It turns out that Dr. John Cutler played a key role in both the Guatemalan experiment and the Tuskegee experiment. The medical research conducted on members of the Guatemalan population stands out as especially egregious given that the year before experiments there began, Cutler and other officials also conducted STD research on prisoners in Indiana. In that case, however, researchers informed the inmates what the study entailed. In the Guatemalan experiment, none of the “test subjects” gave their consent, a violation of their rights likely fueled by the failure of researchers to view them as equally as human as the American test subjects. In 2012, a U.S. court threw out a lawsuit Guatemalan citizens filed against the U.S. government over the unethical medical research.

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