Senior US officials responded swiftly and contritely Friday to revelations of a secret 1940s medical research project in which US scientists infected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a joint statement Friday condemning the “appalling violations” of medical ethics and human decency that occurred as a result of the research.
The two cabinet officials in the Obama administration apologized on behalf of the US to the individuals affected by the “abhorrent” practices revealed in the uncovered project. At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Obama was informed of the research and planned to call Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom to offer official apologies.
Still, the revelation of the six-decade-old project, first made by a Wellesley College professor, is likely to revive perceptions among many Guatemalans that the US long used their country – as well as Central America as a whole – as a colony where it did as it pleased. The US assisted a military coup in Guatemala that toppled a democratically elected president in 1954, and sided with a number of repressive regimes during a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.
“Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health," the two secretaries said. “We apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices.”
The experiments occurred in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948 and involved sending prostitutes infected with syphilis into army barracks, a prison, and a psychiatric hospital to have sexual relations. Those exposed to the disease were then treated with different potential cures, including penicillin.
Susan Reverby, a professor of history and women’s studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, discovered the project while researching the so-called “Tuskegee experiment” under which scientists observed African-American males in Alabama infected with syphilis over several decades but did nothing to inform them or treat them.
The US government has ordered two independent investigations to get to the bottom of what happened in Guatemala, and to review existing regulations of medical research to ensure that US cannot do anything like the Guatemala project again.