“Something of an Adventure”: Postwar NIH Research Ethos and the Guatemala STD Experiments

Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 41 (3):697-710 (2013)


Since their revelation to the public, the sexually transmitted disease experiments in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948 have earned a place of infamy in the history of medical ethics. During these experiments, Public Health Service researchers intentionally exposed over 1,300 non-consenting Guatemalan soldiers, prisoners, psychiatric patients, and commercial sex workers to gonorrhea, syphilis, and/or chancroid under conditions that have shocked the medical community and public alike. Expert analysis has found little scientific value to the experiments as measured by current or contemporaneous research standards.Such an obvious case of research malfeasance, which violated research norms in place both in the past and now, has been uniformly repudiated. The Guatemala STD experiments were labeled “clearly unethical” by President Barack Obama and “reprehensible” by the Secretaries of State and Health and Human Services.

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