The US Used Prostitutes To Give Syphilis To Guatemalans

“All this fuss about sleeping together. For physical pleasure I’d sooner go to my dentist any day.” —Evelyn Waugh

In A Nutshell

Shortly after World War II, the US and Guatemala conducted a secret study on the effects of penicillin on various sexually transmitted diseases, especially syphilis. The reason it was kept under wraps? The subjects were unaware they were being infected, because no one informed them of the experiments. Prostitutes infected with STDs were paid to transmit their diseases and, if they were unsuccessful, doctors would manually infect the subjects, pouring the bacteria on open wounds or injecting it into their spines.

The Whole Bushel

In 1941, penicillin was used to treat an infection for the first time in history. Naturally, the world was searching for other uses for this wonder drug. The United States wanted to see if the treatment would work for those afflicted with a sexually transmitted disease. To do this, funds from the National Institutes of Health were used to hire John Charles Cutler, the doctor who would later be the driving force behind the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Dr. Thomas Parran Jr, the US Surgeon General, concluded the experiments could not be performed on American soil, so another country was selected: Guatemala.

Various Guatemalan health officials were contacted, and a study was set up to begin in 1946. The doctors would hire prostitutes who were infected with gonorrhea, chancroid, or syphilis. (Syphilis was the main target for the experiments.) The women would be used to infect unwitting men who could then be studied to see if penicillin had any effect on the treatment of the disease. They also gave some of the men penicillin before they slept with the prostitutes, to see if it could aid in preventing contraction. The study was able to continue for so long because the men who were infected were among the lowest in Guatemalan society: soldiers, prisoners, and the mentally ill.

The experiments continued until 1948, after 1,300 people had been infected with an STD. Only 700 of those were even treated for their disease. At least 83 people died as a result of the study and an unknown number were left permanently injured for life. (Syphilis, if left untreated, can lead to blindness, insanity, and even death.) There were some cases in the study that were even more shocking, especially considering the Doctors’ Trial was ongoing in Nuremberg. Seven women with epilepsy were injected with syphilis, claiming they believed it would cure epilepsy. (It didn’t.) Another woman, with an unrelated terminal illness, was infected with gonorrhea placed in her eye solely because the doctors wanted to see what would happen if she had another disease.

Show Me The Proof

U.S. Apologizes for Syphilis Tests in Guatemala
Guatemala syphilis experiments in 1940s called “chillingly egregious”
Syphilis Experiments Shock, But So Do Third World Drug Trials

  • gillybean

    Nothing hurts people more than the things we think up to do to each other. So sad.

  • g.g.palin

    Where does the phrase guinea pig come from?

    • Michael Van Duisen

      It was my understanding it came into existence because guinea pigs were the most common test subjects for many years, only recently having been replaced by mice and rats. (Because they breed faster.)

  • vuvuadi

    Wait until all the government secrets reach their ‘reveal date’

  • Gamer_2k4

    “In 1941, penicillin was used to treat an infection for the first time in history.”

    Provably false. The first recorded cure with penicillin was in 1930, 11 years prior.

    Makes you wonder what else in these KnowledgeNuts is wrong…

    • Michael Van Duisen

      If you’re referring to Cecil George Paine’s work in 1930 (and I’m assuming you are), then technically that is true, but it was a very crude form and he never published his work. In the article, I was referring to the purified, injected form used by Howard Florey in 1941, for which he received a Nobel Prize.

    • Michael Van Duisen

      I mean, if you want to get really technical, the ancient Greeks and Indians used mold to treat infections and it is highly conceivable they would have used the penicillium fungi. So you could argue they were actually the first. (Although, they couldn’t extract and purify it like we can.)

  • rhijulbec

    Another black eye for medical research! Is there a theme starting here? Bad people do bad things, sometimes in back allies or sometimes in the name of research…same crime just different level of respectability. They are still sick f**cks no matter what their education.