What do Terre Haute Prisoners, Tuskeegee Sharecroppers, and Guatemalans Have in Common?


It started in Tuskegee, Alabama. The US Public Health Service (PHS) began a study on 600 black sharecroppers in which they were offered free medical treatment. Many of the men had never been to the doctor. Of the men, 399 already had latent syphilis and the control group of 201 men was syphilis free. They all were told they were being treated for “bad blood,” a name given for a variety of ailments at the time. While most of the men already had the disease, some of their spouses and unborn children had not yet contracted it and the government effectively gave it to them.

Part of the purpose of the study was to track the full progression of syphilis and the men were given only placebos or aspirin while the disease took its course, ravaging their bodies. By 1947, penicillin had been proven an effective treatment for syphilis but the men were not offered treatment, only watched as they went blind, insane, and many eventually died.

In the mid-1960s, PHS investigator Peter Buxton voiced his concerns that the study was unethical. A committee was formed to review the program but the Public Health Service elected to see the study through its completion until all the men were dead. Years later, Buxton leaked the story to a reporter who told Associated Press reporter Jean Heller who broke the news nationwide. The public outcry forced the study to shut down. At that time, 28 patients had died from syphilis, 100 more from related complications, 40 spouses had contracted the disease and 19 infants got syphilis at birth.

In 1973, Congress authorized a $10 million settlement for the remaining participants and heirs. New laws were established as to what could happen in US Government-funded research. Many people are generally aware of the Tuskegee Experiments but far fewer know of two other government-backed studies on captive populations, involving some of the same doctors who should have known better.

In 1943, at the Federal Correctional Institute in Terre Haute, Indiana, the government injected 241 men with gonorrhea so that treatments could be studied as to their effectiveness. The men were offered $100, a certificate of merit, and a letter in their file for their parole board hearings. After several months, the study was concluded in 1944 because injecting men in their penises proved an unreliable method of passing along the disease. There is no information available as to the racial make-up of the Indiana subjects as opposed to the black ones in Tuskegee and the brown ones in Guatemala. One can’t help but wonder?

In September 2011, a report titled, “ETHICALLY IMPOSSIBLE” STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948, was released. The following is from the preface:

On October 1, 2010, President Barack Obama telephoned President Álvaro Colom of Guatemala to extend an apology to the people of Guatemala for medical research supported by the United States and conducted in Guatemala between 1946 and 1948. Some of the research involved deliberate infection of people with sexually transmitted diseases (“STDs”)1 without their consent. Subjects were exposed to syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid, and included prisoners, soldiers from several parts of the army, patients in a state-run psychiatric hospital, and commercial sex workers. Serology experiments that did not involve intentional exposure to infection, which continued through 1953, also were performed in these groups, as well as with children from state-run schools, an orphanage, and several rural towns. President Obama expressed “deep regret” for the research and affirmed the U.S. government’s “unwavering commitment to ensure that all human medical studies conducted today meet exacting” standards for the protection of human subjects.

While the United States expressed “deep regret,” it later declared itself not liable for these tests conducted outside the United States. Guatemalans were not entitled to the $10 million the remaining participants and heirs of the Tuskegee Experiment got. They didn’t get the $100 the Terre Haute prisoners got. The United States of America said Guatemalans were entitled to nothing at all. Judge Reggie Walton said he was following Federal law but was deeply troubled by the study. He urged the government to provide assistance to the affected.

“This lawsuit is simply not the appropriate vehicle for remedying those wrongs.”

Lawyers representing the Guatemalans are now seeking redress against private companies involved and in January 2019, a Federal Court declared that the Rockefeller Foundation, the Johns Hopkins Hospital and related entities, and Bristol-Myers who they describe as, “the driving force” behind the study. Several of the doctors worked for Johns Hopkins and received support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Bristol-Myers provided drugs to the small percentage that received treatment. In response to the $1 billion lawsuit lawyers for Johns Hopkins said,

“Johns Hopkins expresses profound sympathy for individuals and families impacted by the deplorable 1940s syphilis study funded and conducted by the U.S. government in Guatemala. We respect the legal process, and we will continue to vigorously defend the lawsuit.”

A spokesman for the Rockefeller Foundation said the lawsuit has no merit and they had no role in the funding, management, or design of the study. Bristol-Myer had no comment at the time.

The US Military had an interest in finding a treatment for syphilis which had no cure when the Tuskegee Experiment began. They estimated that as many as 350,000 soldiers might contract syphilis while fighting overseas wars and at home. Someone in the government thought it was just fine to infect targeted populations of prisoners (race undetermined), poor black people, and brown people of Guatemala. The government was shamed into a settlement with the Tuskegee survivors. They had no concern for the Guatemalans they infected with most receiving no treatment. The trial against the private companies is in discovery and we don’t know what information will be revealed. Here’s hoping that $1 billion is the floor and not the ceiling for compensation.