In the late 40s, American doctors experimented with poor and illiterate Guatemalans - prisoners, psychiatric patients, soldiers, orphans, and sex workers- by infecting them with gonorrhea, syphilis, and chancroid without their consent. Records show that most of the victims never received any form of treatment; many died, and some are still suffering today.
A Guatemalan man named Frederico Ramos was in his twenties when he left for mandatory military service. After serving over two years in the Guatemalan Air Force, Frederico moved to La Escalera to plant crops and start a family. Soon, he began to suffer from what he called “bad urine.” Every time he went to relieve himself, he felt extreme pain, and it got worse. Doctors prescribed him medicine, but it didn’t help, so Frederico learned to live with it.
Frederico and his wife had eight children, and eventually, they experienced similar health issues. And their grandchildren still suffer today. For example, Frederico’s son Benjamin experiences excruciating pain when he urinates, so he has to rest and gather the strength for a bit to get up again to walk. Benjamin’s son Roheli feels aches in joints, mostly in his knees, which kept him from participating in sports as a child. Benjamin’s niece is unable to have children, and Benjamin’s grandchildren have crippling pains in their legs, which prevents them from focusing on school work.
Many years later, a friend, who was studying at the university, looked up their symptoms in a textbook and discovered the symptoms were identical to those who have gonorrhea.
Later on, Frederico and his family would learn that he was part of a secret experiment conducted by U.S. researchers. Dr. John Charles Cutler, an American doctor who worked on the Tuskegee experiments and the Terre Haute prison experiment, moved to Guatemala to study venereal disease on Guatemalan soldiers. Cutler didn’t inject them with the disease; instead, he infected prostitutes with gonorrhea by inserting the bacteria directly into their genitals. The infected prostitutes had sex with the men, first the prisoners and later, the soldiers. The prostitutes were told to have sex with multiple men in a row to be sure they spread the disease, but for some unknown reason, it didn’t work. Cutler was determined, so his research methods became more extreme. He began infecting pus deeper into the women’s genitals. Cutler also infected patients’ eyes with gonorrhea bacteria. He even created open cuts on the men’s’ genitals and covered them with syphilitic material. Some men were given injections of pus directly into their spinal cords. Some patients died during the experiment. Cutler ended up infecting over 1300 men and women without their consent, all funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
During that time, it was a crime in Guatemala to knowingly infect a person with a venereal disease, and doctors knew their patients were infected without consent and did nothing to prevent transmission. Guatemalan authorities and the Ministry of Health were aware, yet they also failed to stop it. The secret experiment conducted on Guatemalans was considered acceptable at the time, and that’s one of the most frightening things about it.
Seventy years passed before the victims and their families were notified of what happened to them. A Wellesley College professor by the name of Susan M. Reverby came across Cutler’s papers in 2010, as she was researching the Tuskegee experiments. Reverby passed the information on to a former director at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the news made its way to the White House. The Obama administration publicly apologized calling the experiment “reprehensible.” But they did very little to help the victims. In 2017, over 800 Guatemalans filed a class-action lawsuit for $1 billion against John Hopkins University for their role in the experiments, after their initial lawsuit was dismissed in 2016, under the grounds of sovereign immunity.The lawsuit also names Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Rockefeller Foundation as defendants. The case is still ongoing.
The case is Estate of Arturo Giron Alvarez et al v The Johns Hopkins University et al, U.S. District Court, District of Maryland, No. 15-00950.