Obama orders review after revelations of ‘40s-era Guatemala syphilis study


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The White House has ordered a comprehensive review of medical research guidelines after revelations last month that the U.S. knowingly infected hundreds of Guatemalan prisoners and patients with syphilis or gonorrhea in the 1940s.

President Obama’s directive last week to convene a Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues is another acknowledgement of, as the president said, ‘past abuses’ in U.S. medical research since medical historian Susan Reverby revealed that the U.S. Public Health Service exposed thousands in Guatemala to the sexually transmitted diseases without their knowledge or consent.


Obama called Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom in early October to apologize on behalf of his government, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the research ‘abhorrent.’ Here’s previous coverage in La Plaza. Here’s the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services information page on the Guatemalan experiment.

Conducted between 1946 and 1948, the study in Guatemala was meant to test whether penicillin could treat syphilis and other STDs. It was led by an American doctor, John Cutler, who would later lead the infamous Tuskegee experiment in Alabama, in which African American men with syphilis were observed as the disease progressed without treatment.

Although the Guatemalan study occurred more than 60 years ago, some pharmaceutical companies have shifted their clinical trials overseas, making the question of protection of human subjects in medical research still relevant today, notes the journal Nature.

Obama’s order calls for a panel to work for nine months beginning in January to examine whether federal and international regulations adequately guard subjects in medical studies supported by the U.S. government.

‘While I believe the research community has made tremendous progress in the area of human subjects’ protection, what took place in Guatemala is a sobering reminder of past abuses,’ Obama said. ‘We owe it to the people of Guatemala and future generations of volunteers who participate in medical research.’

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City