Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Medical Research in the Rearview Mirror

What medical research being performed today -- and considered acceptable and ethical by contemporary standards -- will not fare so well in the opinion of future generations? 
This is the provocative question posed by the journal Nature in Hypocritical Oaths: History judges some research as unethical, despite approval at the time. 

The Nature essay comes in response to the revelation of tests conducted without consent on more than 5,000 Guatemalans, at least 1,300 of them infected with sexually transmitted diseases, as part of a U.S. Public Health Service research project from 1946-48.
At least 83 people died, and many others were gravely harmed by treatment so obviously barbaric by today’s standards. Victims included prisoners, soldiers, the mentally ill and commercial sex workers. 
Though the Guatemalan research was conducted at roughly the same time as the Nuremberg Trials --  which revealed research atrocities of Nazi Germany -- it did not come to light until 2010, revealed by the Obama administration (NOTE: correction in Comments) with a formal apology to the Central American country. 
The horrid story has led to recommendation of new rules to protect volunteers in human-subject experiments, and the Obama administration has allocated funds to fight sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala.
In a recent editorial, the Washington Post called the apology from the U.S. government insufficient and recommended that compensation should be paid to victims or their survivors. “It should not take a lawsuit to prompt the government to do the right thing,” the Post editorial said.

The CEC’s report for the Presidential Commission on Bioethical Issues, Advocacy for Research Participants, can be read here


  1. Just a small correction: these experiments were not revealed by the Obama administration. They were uncovered by Susan Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College, who has conducted extensive research on the U.S. government's research in Tuskegee. Upon learning of the events that took place in Guatemala, the Obama administration acted swiftly, directing the President's Commission on Bioethics to halt their current projects in order to focus on what happened in Guatemala. More can be learned about the Commission at

    More about the Syphilis Tests in Guatemala can be found here:

  2. Thanks, Lori. Not a "small" correction at all. Susan Reverby deserves credit, certainly not to be overlooked or forgotten, for her work in bringing this troubling history to light.

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