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.