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Oct 04

Some Commentary on the Medical Experiments in Guatemala in the 40’s

In my Bible, the ten commandments take up less than a column of text, while one law, the Patriot Act (Patriot….Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism….who thinks up these acronyms, anyway?), is 342 pages of single spaced type. Maybe God really wanted to provide more detail, but was limited by the technology of the time. Imagine a Facebook where all the status updates have to be chiseled out of stone. And maybe there was a lot more to say, but how was Moses gonna get something the size of the Patriot act, lasered into stone tablets, down the side of a mountain, let alone build an ark for and carry them around all over the place. These days, God could just hand Moses a memory stick and provide much more detailed instructions on how everybody was supposed to behave themselves and what they should definitely stay away from.

Besides that, back then, I don’t think anybody was even thinking about doing medical experiments, so I doubt even if God and Moses had Macbook Pros with an ad hoc wireless network setup to transfer tons of data, the subject would have been mentioned. But by 1946 AD, far in time and distance from that scene on Mt. Sinai, this search for medical understanding was already well established.

This past week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a joint apology to Guatemala and its residents in the US for medical experiments with sexually transmitted diseases using uninformed Guatemalans. “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,” said Clinton and Sebelius in a joint statement. “We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices.”

Apparently there were a bunch of Doctors in the USA in the early part of the 20th Century that were fascinated with the sexual transmitted disease, syphilis. The syphilitic spirochete reportedly has a very sly, tricky behavior. The fact that it was acknowledged that the disease was rapidly disappearing seemed to give these “Syphilologists” even more motivation to crack open its mysteries. There was only so far you can get with rabbits and monkeys, so they needed to experiment on some real people to pin this thing down.

The principal doctor and the head man of these Guatemalan experiments was Dr. John C. Cutler. I’ve seen a blog about this subject that called this guy an American Josef Mengele, the Nazi’s Auschwitz Angel of Death. I don’t think you can go nearly that far, but what I do find fascinating about this story is the way that it reveals that behavior that would be found outrageous in society can be considered right, necessary, and correct within a particular subgroup.

Earlier in the 40’s, they’d tried to inject “volunteer” prisoners in a federal pen with the disease, but found very little success in getting them to exhibit the symptoms, so it was decided that different methods, which called for different places to implement them, was needed. When I met my wife, Carolina, in the early eighties, and she told me about her time in the Peace Corp in Guatemala, I knew nothing about the place, other than it was somewhere south of Mexico. Imagine the general public’s knowledge of Guatemala in the mid-forties! The country was dominated at this time by the U.S. based corporation, the United Fruit Company, what the locals rather un-affectionately referred to as El Pulpo (The Octopus), for having its tentacles in all phases of Guatemalan business and government. What better place, close to home, completely out of the public eye, to subdue the syphilitic spirochete?

Man with syphilis rash

I acknowledge that when we’re talking about morality in medical experiments we’re skating on some metaphorically pretty dang thin ice. Even when we’re just discussing morality ….period, ….and right and wrong….well, let’s just say it’s open to a lot of interpretation and point of view. When I was a kid, I skated on a lot of actual thin ice and know that one moment you’re gliding and the next you can be clanging your blades on rocks, up to your thighs in very cold water. I would think that most people would agree that if you were going to infect somebody with a disease like syphilis, you ought to at least tell him that that’s what you’re doing, but in most cases this wasn’t done.

Well, infecting guys with syphilis was not all that easy to do. But the most obvious place to start was to get a bunch of prostitutes that were already infected, and send them in. So the U.S. taxpayer (I always love hearing the crazy and unique things U.S. citizens have paid for, but this is one of the better ones) paid for a regiment of whores to visit men at Guatemala City’s central pen. (Was this free love for these guys?….nah, I don’t think so.) Prostitution was legal at the time in Guatemala so this was another reason that Guatemala was great for medical research vacations. Other practitioners of the world’s oldest profession, who were not infected, later got their chance to earn some American dollars as well by having the inoculate of the disease placed on their cervix shortly before entering the slammer to meet their clients. But still, the results were disappointing to the researchers. Apparently, these men had some similarities with the former syphilitic research subject, the rabbit. It was, Wham Bam, thank you, M’am and done. The doctors determined that they were not spending sufficient time with the ladies to produce a high percentage of infections.

Some of the oddest attempts at inoculation were done with members of the Guatemalan Army. I can’t imagine what they must have told these guys….the researchers or the soldiers! To get the disease to definitively take, a soldier’s penis was abraded just short of bleeding with a hypodermic needle, then held in the hand of the researcher, for sometimes more than two hours, while the researcher dripped syphilitic inoculate onto the abraded portion of the penis! I wonder what kind of conversations they were having. Everybody on the job, and their superiors back at the Public Health Service in the USA, knew that they were getting out on the edge with this one! So by 1948, two years into the work, the PHS called their boys back to the USA.

But it was only 6 years later in 1954 when another organization from the U.S. had Guatemala by the, this time metaphorical, short and curlies. Now it was the CIA, not the PHS, but the results were far more devastating and long lasting. I don’t recall hearing any apologies for this one yet.

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