By Jacobo G. García. Translated by Camden Luxford
Original Version in Spanish at El Mundo
“The U.S. was looking for a place were they could find people already infected with these diseases and in that time in Guatemala it was legal to bring a prostitute into the prisons for sexual services, which made the study easier. The U.S. found the ideal place."
The first objective was, apparently, to find a poor country without public institutions or health services where a man with an American accent, white coat and stethoscope around his neck could work freely under the pretense that he’d arrived to heal. It was the 1940s, and Guatemala was the ideal location.
One by one, prostitutes were chosen, preferably those with many clients and few scruples. Later, the soldiers, the poor, orphans, the mentally ill, the indigenous, and so on. Hundreds and hundreds of people became victims of an experiment designed in U.S. laboratories and tested among the lowest and most miserable of Guatemalans.
In total, as was publicized Monday, 1,300 people were infected between 1946 and 1948 in a massive experiment. Behind this experiment was the U.S. Department of Health and the sinister Dr. John Cutler, who was also famous in Alabama for having used hundreds of black men as guinea pigs in the so-called “Tuskegee” experiment, in which more than a hundred people died.
“A Monstrosity,” declared Tuesday’s headlines in Guatemala’s most important newspaper, Prensa Libre, on being informed of the details of the experiment in which 5,500 patients were deceived, 1,300 infected, 83 dead. The women were injected with syphilis and gonorrhea in the arm; the men, in the penis.
Barack Obama called Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom to apologize for having made the population of the Central American country believe they were receiving a vaccination to study to effects of penicillin when, in reality, they were infected with an aggressive bacteria that first destroyed their soft tissue and bones, later provoked heart failure and blindness, and finally, covered the body with horrible yellow ulcers.
“Initially, they used prostitutes, hoping they would spread the disease, but, as it didn’t work as well as planned, they drew on soldiers and children of an orphanage in the capital city, whom they inoculated in the testicles with a small cut that was later placed in contact with syphilitic secretions,” Dr. Carlos Mejía, a member of the commission set up by the Guatemalan government to find possible victims for the experiments, explained to El Mundo.es months ago.
“What are they carrying in those little jars?”
“It’s probably saliva.”
“But that’s not how you test for HIV here, is it?”
“They’re also testing for TB.”
“When they test for HIV, they also test for TB. Free here…. A small extra service to humanity.”
“They’re a drug company, Arnold. Come on. No drug company does something for nothing,” says the actress Rachel Weisz moments before her character’s assassination in the film “The Constant Gardner” (2005), as she watches a long queue of cheated Africans, exploited by a multinational corporation that tests on humans before releasing its medications to the market. A method that, 60 years earlier, had already been practiced in Guatemala, and even earlier on Jews in Nazi concentration camps.
The terrible Doctor Cutler
What the Guatemalans also didn’t know is that behind this project was John C. Cutler, chief of the U.S. Public Health Service’s Venereal Disease Program and, years later, discovered as one of the masterminds of the “Tuskegee” case, one of the most pernicious episodes in the history of medicine.
This gigantic clinical experiment, directed by the Public Health Service starting in 1930, took as subjects hundreds of poor, black, illiterate men of Alabama who, without knowing it, served for years to study the effects of syphilis over time.
The program continued until 1972, when a project insider leaked information to a journalist. 28 men had died of syphilis and another 100 people had perished due to related complications. The scandal reached Congress and millions of dollars of compensation was awarded to wives, widows and children. Six months before his death in 2003, Doctor Cutler witnessed then President Bill Clinton asking for public pardon for that aberration.
But like John Le Carré’s novel, on which “The Constant Gardner” was based, this history also has a heroine. She didn’t travel to Kenya, but to the University of Pittsburgh. There, in the library archives, Dr. Susan Reverby discovered that Guatemala was, throughout Truman’s presidency, the field lab of American scientists.
The experiment revealed
“The U.S. was looking for a place were they could find people already infected with these diseases and in that time in Guatemala it was legal to bring a prostitute into the prisons for sexual services, which made the study easier. The U.S. found the ideal place.
“I opened the boxes expecting to see material about Tuskegee, and this is all that was inside. I was shocked by what I had found. From that moment I started to prepare a report about the new case,” Doctor Reverby explained in an interview with this paper.
Her report shows that the medical team would have decided on Guatemala for the occurrence of the disease among the population and because, apparently, the country’s authorities had assured them that syphilis was common among Latin Americans. However, faced with the impossibility of bringing prostitutes into mental hospitals and the apparent resistance of prisoners to the procedures, Cutler’s experiments on adults were at a dead end. Instead, the team focused on the orphanage of Guatemala City.
Professor Reverby didn’t just uncover the experimental inoculation of venereal diseases, but also the unethical behavior that was employed, as revealed in letters exchanged at the time between John Cutler and R.C. Arnold, one of his collaborators: “We are explaining to the patients…with but a few key exceptions, that the treatment is a new one utilizing serum followed by penicillin. This double talk keeps me hopping at times,” says one of the letters sent by Cutler.
“A few words to the wrong person here, or even at home, might wreck it or parts of it,” he wrote in another letter.
Without doubt, it was the 1940s and Guatemala was a miserable, poor country without public institutions, where a man with an American accent, white coat and stethoscope around his neck could make everybody believe that he’d arrived to heal.
Edited by Jennifer Pietropaoli
Source: Watching America
CLICK HERE FOR ORIGINAL VERSION IN SPANISH