Slightly late to this, but about a week ago the US press started carrying stories about some highly unethical experiments carried out in Guatemala.   US medical researchers infected Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients with syphilis (without their consent) and went on to test whether the then new wonder drug, penicillin, would cure them.

This has been covered in-depth over at science-based medicine, so I won’t go into too much detail here.

One thing that caught my attention was that John C Cutler was the lead researcher on the experiment.  Cutler went on to work on the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, which ran into the ’70s.  This experiment tracked hundreds of poor black men with syphilis to study the long-term effects when the disease is left untreated.

The study started before the advent of antibiotics made effective treatment of syphilis possible.  An argument could be made that, given there was no effective treatment at the time, the study was not unethical at the start.  However my impression is that the subjects were never told that they had syphilis and therefore some men went on to infect partners who might have avoided infection had the men known of their infection.

Moreover this fig leaf of justification falls away completely once you realise the study went on for 25 years after penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis.  Doctors and scientists lied to the men involved to prevent them receiving treatment.  Indeed the study only ended after a whistleblower went to the press to have the study stopped (after failing to persuade his superiors to do so).

Unbelievable Cutler was still defending the Tuskegee experiment into the 90s.  Since he is dead we can never know what justifications he would have come up with for the Guatemala experiments.  Looking back over his career one is forced to the conclusion that the only thing distinguishing Cutler from those who ended up swinging at the end of a noose in Landsberg prison was not his ethics but that he was born American.

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