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Posted by on Oct 4, 2010 in Ethics, Health care, Infectious diseases

Venereal Disease and the Sorry History of the Public Health Service: Wait, There’s More

Venereal Disease and the Sorry History of the Public Health Service: Wait, There’s More


Friday’s unsettling news that physicians with the Public Health Service (PHS) attempted to inoculate Guatemalan prisoners with syphilis in the 1940s* prompts more in-depth reading on the subject. In her online article, groundbreaking medical historian Susan Reverby also writes about similar and poorly known human experiments on American prisoners, which were funded by US tax payers.

In 1944, PHS investigators attempted to inoculate Neisseria gonorrhoeae into prisoners at the Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary. The experiments were abandoned, however, given the difficulty of transmitting the VD bacterium by penile-inoculation methods. Results of the failed experiment were not cloistered, however. They were written up by Mahoney et al (“Experimental gonococcic urethritis in human volunteers”) and published in the now-long-defunct American Journal of Syphilis, Gonorrhea and Venereal Diseases (1946;30:1-39).

In 1953, PHS physicians conducted another inoculation study, this time with Treponema pallidum, the cause of syphilis, at New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison on 62 imprisoned “volunteers.” The 1940s Guatemala studies informed the inoculation methods attempted in the Sing Sing experiments, writes Reverby; although a published medical report of the NY prison study in 1956 failed to mention the PHS’s foundational work in Guatemala.

Reverby calls out John C. Cutler, MD, a coauthor of both US prison studies, as leading the American-funded human experimentation in Guatemala. Cutler is notorious for overseeing the PHS’s Tuskegee syphilis experiment. But Reverby distinguishes the US prison and Guatemalan studies of the 1940s and 50s from the decades-long Tuskegee study by noting that the latter did not employ inoculation techniques or offer penicillin treatment, whereas the former trials did.

* Which has prompted apologies to the Guatemalan government from President Obama, as well as the Secretary of State and the DHHS Secretary (despite the fact that the Guatemalan government was complicit in the PHS experiments at the time, according to Reverby).

Portrait of PHS physician John C. Cutler, MD, August 25, 1942, from the National Library of Medicine.

bmartin (1127 Posts)

A native East Tennessean, Barbara Martin is a formerly practicing, board-certified neurologist who received her BS (psychology, summa cum laude) and MD from Duke University before completing her postgraduate training (internship, residency, fellowship) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She has worked in academia, private practice, medical publishing, drug market research, and continuing medical education (CME). For the last 3 years, she has worked in a freelance capacity as a medical writer, analyst, and consultant. Follow Dr. Barbara Martin on and Twitter.