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Free syphilis and gonorrhea here!-- the United States Public Health Service at work
August 15, 2011 11:05 AM   Subscribe

Between 1946 and 1948, the United States deliberately infected hundreds with gonorrhea and syphilis in Guatemala. This link goes to a page on the National Archives posting the records of Dr. John C. Cutler, a surgeon with the United States Public Health Service. Some of the 70 links from that page go to files containing graphic images. The National Archives and Records Administration has reviewed these historical records for release, and has redacted only information identifying each patient (updated 8/2/11). The original records are available for public research in the National Archives at Atlanta. Some of the files contain graphic medical images of the effects of untreated sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including syphilis, which may not be appropriate for all audiences. A preview of some of the Doctor's correspondence is available at Harper's. (Subscription required.)
posted by notmtwain (29 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previously
posted by nickmark at 11:15 AM on August 15, 2011


When I hear the skeptic community complain about how ignorant people are for being suspicious of medicine, I get frustrated by the fact that, sometimes, it's about people being knowledgeable to their history and non-consensual medical experiments and procedures inflicted upon them.

Acknowledging that history, addressing current issues (like medical testing in Africa, for example), and a strong focus on ethics and human rights is not optional if we want people to accept medicine and the science that backs it.
posted by yeloson at 11:18 AM on August 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


yeloson- how does lack of consent imply that the results obtained were not accurate?
posted by Jpfed at 11:23 AM on August 15, 2011


Previously
posted by nickmark at 11:15 AM on August 15 [+] [!]

The archives weren't posted until this March, so I think there is a lot of new previously unseen materal to go through.
posted by notmtwain at 11:24 AM on August 15, 2011


January 7, 1947 So far as the work in the prison goes, to increase
the number of exposures we shall bring in the
source of infection along with some not infected
so as to allay fears and suspicion. In that way, we
shall be able to avoid political repercussions, which
are even now in the air. It is quite probable that
we shall pay the men either nothing or a pack of
cigarettes or some soap or other items for each
extraction of blood. The scheme seems to be the
one acceptable to all concerned and offers the
least risk of any trouble. But within that framework
there will be a great deal of freedom to work.
In addition, we are making some arrangement to
carry out inoculation in the insane asylum. It
seems we shall have all the work we can handle.
posted by notmtwain at 11:27 AM on August 15, 2011


how does lack of consent imply that the results obtained were not accurate?

Because they were obtained fraudulently. Science depends on trust and reputation, because it is a social and not a mathematical process.

Let that sink in and stew for a bit. Scientific Method is a social construct designed to obtain knowledge. It's not a platonic absolute. It is messy and inhabited by unreliable primates, and designed to get the best body of knowledge from them, deranged and changeable monkey instincts and all.

If you are violating the terms of that social construct - causing deliberate and lasting harm to human test subjects - your entire body of work is suspect and worthless. You cannot be trusted to run the experiment or report its results faithfully. It must be discarded.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:34 AM on August 15, 2011 [18 favorites]


I see your two years in Guatemala, and I raise you forty years in Alabama.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:35 AM on August 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Jpfed, I think yeloson's point was unrelated to accuracy of medical/scientific results, but was rather that, due to how medical authorities have behaved in the past, some communities might reasonably be suspicious of stuff like vaccines. Suppose that you're not a trained scientist or doctor and don't have access to current medical literature: how would you know that this time it's actually (eg.) a vaccine that is going to help public health in your community, and not another experiment with negative health outcomes for you and your loved ones? The issue here is not lack of belief in science (unlike some recent anti-vaccine campaigns originating from, eg., white, affluent, and well-known actresses), but lack of belief in the authorities pushing some campaign on your community in the name of public health.
posted by eviemath at 11:44 AM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The archives weren't posted until this March, so I think there is a lot of new previously unseen materal to go through.

Oh, yeah - I was just trying to add a little extra context, not suggesting that this was a double. Seems like this is a lot (all?) of the primary material that Reverby based her work on, yes? Nice to have that posted publicly.
posted by nickmark at 11:47 AM on August 15, 2011


When I hear the skeptic community complain about how ignorant people are for being suspicious of medicine, I get frustrated by the fact that, sometimes, it's about people being knowledgeable to their history and non-consensual medical experiments and procedures inflicted upon them.

Acknowledging that history, addressing current issues (like medical testing in Africa, for example), and a strong focus on ethics and human rights is not optional if we want people to accept medicine and the science that backs it.


I agree, but it's worth noting that this sort of thing cuts both ways. It's obvious that there are many problems with medicine as it is practiced today, and I'm not necessarily opposed to alternative medicine... but it's also obvious that some of it (crystal/touch/energy/aura/etc "healing", homeopathy, "psychic surgery", etc) is little more than an out-and-out scam being perpetrated (knowingly or not) against sick people, with zero ethical or human-rights oversight. I understand why Science And Medicine should be judged by the worst it has done in the world, as well as the best... but it'd be nice to see the same standard applied to those who are "suspicious of medicine".

The current alternative-med free-for-all isn't doing anyone any favors -- to me it looks very much like the history of medicine in the early 20th century, all over again.
posted by vorfeed at 12:46 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I see your two years in Guatemala, and I raise you forty years in Alabama.

Based on an excerpt in the reading section of this month's Harper's, at least one of the doctors was involved in both.
posted by LionIndex at 1:02 PM on August 15, 2011


That should be "Readings". The doctor is John Cutler.
posted by LionIndex at 1:03 PM on August 15, 2011


Speaking of medical testing in Africa:
Nigerians Receive First Payments for Children Who Died in 1996 Meningitis Drug Trial
posted by BungaDunga at 1:34 PM on August 15, 2011


Why didn't the man die in jail (Cutler)? Was he ever stripped of his credentials?

How are we supposed to trust the medical profession at all when there aren't serious repercussions to breaking their oaths? (similar questions can be posed about the actions of physicians assisting US forces in torture).
posted by el io at 1:40 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why didn't the man die in jail (Cutler)? Was he ever stripped of his credentials?

Cutler became assistant surgeon general in 1958.

In 1967 Cutler was appointed professor of international health at the University of Pittsburgh, where he also served as chairman of the department of health administration and acting dean of the Graduate School of Public Health in 1968–1969.

posted by Sys Rq at 1:48 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ugh. I read about this a while ago when it came out. It makes me sick.

Essentially, what I do is make sure that these things never happen. I am in charge of making sure that volunteers for our trials are fully informed of what is going to happen to them during a study. It sets the field of research back decades every time another one of these abuses is revealed and yet the abuses MUST be revealed.

Just as people must know what is going to occur during the course of a study, they must know the horrific and ethically problematic history of clinical trials in this country and around the world.

I also hope that people, despite these abuses in the past, will volunteer for trials, otherwise, we will never have novel treatments available.

Just a reference, I'm a member of PRIM&R (Public Responsibility in Medicine & Research), an organization dedicated to the protection of research subjects.
posted by Sophie1 at 1:53 PM on August 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


More dehumanizing of the culturally (racially) other. Open disclosure is the only recourse.

Then there's the whole sexual mores angle. Primitives fuckin like monkeys. Ignoring the promiscuity behind "our" own curtain. The war against sex. Carried out by people nobody wanted to fuck. Sour grapes and power don't mix well.
posted by yesster at 2:10 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is one of the very few wikipedia articles that I think could easily make a good single link here on the blue about unethical human experimentation in the United States


posted by Blasdelb at 2:59 PM on August 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


It is messy and inhabited by unreliable primates, and designed to get the best body of knowledge from them, deranged and changeable monkey instincts and all.

Left as an exercise: Joke combining "Evolutionists" and "Intelligent Designers."
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:22 PM on August 15, 2011


If you are violating the terms of that social construct - causing deliberate and lasting harm to human test subjects - your entire body of work is suspect and worthless. You cannot be trusted to run the experiment or report its results faithfully. It must be discarded.

I'll grant "suspect". I don't see how you made the jump from that to "worthless".

Actually, science is always "suspect," and you're always supposed to retest again and again to get better data--but if you're just saying it's more important to check the data that we got from questionable sources, sure, that's a good idea.

Still doesn't mean the data is worthless, though.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:35 PM on August 15, 2011


If the scientist's judgement was that faulty to begin with, there is no guarantee the hypothesis itself is sound, or the results garnered accurate. The preponderance of evidence shows that experiments that lack an ethical base are typically flawed at best, faked at worst - self delusion is a powerful contaminant, and the researcher has already proven their judgement cannot be trusted.

What's more, the results will not be repeated, by definition, so the hypothesis, the experiment, its data, it's results and it's conclusion will not be verified by anyone not a criminal. So it's worthless, top to bottom, bottom to top.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:52 PM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


You can see Dr. Cutler here at youtube, actually about a minute after that link, I left some lead in. He's the little guy that sounds like Emperor Palpatine, talking about how this is all perfectly reasonable.
posted by nervousfritz at 8:12 PM on August 15, 2011


If the scientist's judgement was that faulty to begin with, there is no guarantee the hypothesis itself is sound, or the results garnered accurate. [...]

What's more, the results will not be repeated, by definition, so the hypothesis, the experiment, its data, it's results and it's conclusion will not be verified by anyone not a criminal. So it's worthless, top to bottom, bottom to top.


You did it again, there. You jumped from "no guarantee" to "worthless".

We can't repeat this exact experiment, sure. We'll probably do it on mice or something. Maybe we have already? Or, if not an experiment, then we'll do it the same way we study brain damage, by collecting "nature's experiments" and doing the best we can with that.

Which is also unreliable compared with a properly controlled experiment. Sometimes science is unreliable. With time it gets more reliable. Darwin was a great scientist, even though we now know his understanding of genetics to be highly inaccurate.

I'm not suggesting these men in the FPP were great scientists, only that it makes no sense to throw out data because you don't like where it came from.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:19 PM on August 15, 2011


Without the guarantee that the researchers were working ethically and in good faith, the research is worthless. It's not a big leap. Science is built on the reputation of the scientist, and this insistance that there is "something" there for "legitimate" scientists to build on is the exact same line of wishful thinking that keeps free-energy scammers rolling in the dough.

Pseudo science is pseudo science - it preys on those who wish modern scientific method had a shortcut.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:43 PM on August 15, 2011


Syphilis Laboratory - Guatemala
posted by unliteral at 8:47 PM on August 15, 2011


It's reading stuff like this that makes me happy there's not a God, let alone a vengeful one. Humans would be so fucked.
posted by deborah at 10:07 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


yeloson- how does lack of consent imply that the results obtained were not accurate?

It doesn't. It just means that sometimes getting vaccinated is a a bad idea because it's really a front for something else -- medical testting, or collecting DNA to see if anyone is related to bin-laden. Unethical science isn't bad because it gets bad results. It's bad because it discredits science as a whole
posted by delmoi at 4:39 AM on August 16, 2011


If you think that's bad, you should see how many I've deliberately infected with syphilis and gonorrhea. It's not as many, but then I'm not a government.
posted by Eideteker at 5:35 AM on August 16, 2011


....An honest question -- is it possible to posthumously revoke someone's medical license?

It wouldn't do a whole hell of a lot for the victims, to be sure, but it'd send a pretty clear message to future doctors that "We Will Not Accept This Sort Of Thing."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:57 PM on August 16, 2011


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