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Escaping the Melodrama of the Ethically Impossible, the U.S. Sexually Transmitted Disease Studies in Guatemala

University of Virginia. School of Medicine
Online; Online Video; Video
Filmed Lectures
In 1990, University of Pittsburgh Public Health Professor John C. Cutler delivered to the university's archives thousands of pages of documents and photographs about an unpublished research project that he ran in Guatemala for the U.S. and Guatemalan governments between 1946 and 1948. Duly cataloged, the files then sat in the library until the mid 2000s, when historian Susan Reverby began to read them as part of her book project on the Tuskegee syphilis studies. Who knew that the infamous U.S. Public Health Service Study of Untreated Syphilis in Tuskegee, Alabama, had an off shore successor? Unlike Tuskegee, the Guatemala studies led by Dr. Cutler involved actual inoculation of sexually transmitted diseases and the paying of sex workers to transmit disease. Unsuspecting and unconsenting prisoners, soldiers, mental patients, and sex workers participated; only some were treated if and when they became infected. In 2009, Professor Reverby returned to the Pittsburgh archive, and in 2010 she wrote up her findings on the Guatemala project. She shared her unpublished article with the late David Sencer, former director of the Centers for Disease Conrol (CDC), who gave the article to the current CDC leadership. The CDC prepared its own report and sent it, along with the Reverby article, up the chain of command to the White House. On Oct. 1, 2010, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton apologized to the Guatemalan government and President Obama telephoned then President Colom in Guatemala to explain. In the spotlight of worldwide media attention, presidential commissions in both countries undertook investigations, and survivors of the study filed suit against the U.S. government. The Guatemala study and its aftermath have urgently renewed debate about the ethics of clinical research involving human participants, especially research carried out with vulnerable populations and in the global arena. In this Medical Center Hour, Susan Reverby discusses how her discovery of the Guatemala study files set in motion international investigative and diplomatic processes and what we can learn from this ethically immoral use of medical science. Bioethicist John Arras, a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, will comment on the commission's investigation and its 2011 report, Ethically impossible: STD research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948.
University of Virginia. School of Medicine
Childress, Marcia Day
Reverby, Susan
Arras, John D., 1945-2015
Claude Moore Health Sciences Library
Medical Center Hour
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The speakers in this presentation have given the University of Virginia permission to make it freely accessible online for all audiences to view. To request permission to reproduce, republish, and/or repost this presentation please contact the Historical Collections and Services Department of the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library at the University of Virginia.
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