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Human Guinea Pigs

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 06, 2010

It was a stunning announcement. The news reverberated around the world: United States researcher Government guilty of intentionally injecting hundreds of Guatemalans, including institutionalized mental patients, with gonorrhea and syphilis without their knowledge or permission. From 1946 to 1948, Dr. John Cutler and his colleagues conducted their studies with the blessings of the United States Health authorities and the Guatemalan government.

In a synopsis of this horrible experiment, Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby, the author of this riveting study, outlines the driving force behind this experiment that were performed on 696 men and women in Guatemala. She notes: "The doctors used prostitutes with the disease to pass it to the prisoners (since sexual visits were allowed by law in Guatemalan prisons) and then did direct inoculations made from syphilis bacteria poured onto the men's penises or on forearms and faces that were slightly abraded when the 'normal exposure' produced little disease, or in a few cases through spinal puncture."

This experiment in Guatemala was the continuation of one that began earlier in the United States. In 1944, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) did experiments at the Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary in the Untied States in which men were deliberately injected with gonorrhea to see if the disease could be prevented. In one case, the substance used in the inoculation was taken from the penis of one infected man and put into the penis of another infected man just to see how effectively things worked. They knew that when the syphilis bacteria were exposed to the air it dies. In Guatemala they had to be sure their experiment worked.

This story is so gruesome because it was conducted with the permission and knowledge of some of the highest health officials and organizations in the United States and Latin America. Cutler was a physician with PHS. His study was co-sponsored by the PHS, the National Institutes of Health, the Pan American Health Sanitary Bureau (not the Pan American Health Organization), and the Guatemalan government. Every official organization was in on this experiment. The PHS wanted to see "whether penicillin could be used to prevent, not just cure, early syphilis infection, whether better blood tests for the disease could be established, what dosages of penicillin actually cured infection, and to understand the process of re-infection after cures."

After they infected the subjects with syphilis they were given penicillin to cure the disease they had induced in the first place. It is not clear if these subjects were cured after penicillin was administered to them. Cutler did not wait to find out. After two years Cutler and his team left Guatemala and continued their work in the United States where they participated in the Syphilis Study in at the Sing Sing Prison. According to Professor Reverby, this study focused "on the immunological responses to the disease and to providing up to day science in the face of penicillin wide spread usage."

Cutler was also involved in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment in which 400 African Americans with late-stage syphilis were told they were being treated for "bad blood" while another 200 were treated with placebos, nursing visits and so on for forty six years (that is, from 1932-76). They, too, were sacrificed on the pedestal of science. Cutler and other had no problems using these African Americans as they used the Guatemalans as guinea pigs in their experiment.

It might be that Cutler's commitment to scholarship led him to think he was doing a noble thing. He did nothing to hide his notes or the results of his experiment which accounts for the fact that they were calmly left in boxes that he or his relatives sent to the University of Pittsburg where they were stored. This is where Professor Reverby found them.

Cutler never thought he was doing anything wrong. He joined the PHS in 1942. In 1967 he joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburg as a professor of international health and served as dean from 1968-69. His obituary notice says that his service at the Public Health Venereal Disease Research Laboratory "led to his appointment to head the venereal disease research program of the Pan American Sanitary Bureau in Guatemala in 1948." His period of service in Guatemala and his infamous experiment was passed over as though it never happened.

Cutler was unrepentant about the experiments that he and his colleagues carried out on African Americans from 1932 to 1976. In 1993, in a PBS Nova documentary, "The Deadly Deception," he defended his action in Tuskegee as though nothing unusual had taken place. He bemoaned that the Tuskegee Study had "been grossly misunderstood and misrepresented...It was concern for the black community, trying to set the stage for the best public health approach possible and the best therapy, that led to the study [that was] being carried out."

Without blushing an eye, he continued: "We were dealing with a very important study that was going to have the long-term results of which were actually to improve the quality of care for the black community so that these individuals were actually contributing to the work towards the improvement of the health of the black community rather than simply serving as merely guinea pigs for the study. And of course I was bitterly opposed to killing off the study for obvious reasons."

His wife Eliese Cutler, a Wellesley alum, was equally implicated. She assisted her husband in the administration of the experiment. She photographed the subjects and the inoculations just for the record. It was all part of a day's work. Like his Tuskegee experiment, Dr. Cutler would have maintained that his study in Guatemala was in the best interest of humanity. I am not sure the subjects of his experiments shared his views.

On Friday evening after the news broke, I congratulated Susan on her success. After all, we have been colleagues for over twenty years. She responded: "Thanks Selwyn for your kind note. I really appreciate it. I'll be happier when these fifteen minutes are up. Even better news yesterday for me personally: the Tuskegee book [Examining Tuskegee] won the Emerson Prize from the Phi Beta Kappa. We labor long and quietly in the archives and in our studies, and occasionally someone notices." In this case, the world has noticed Susan's work.

Susan deserves the international recognition she has received for her discovery. Well done sister and keep up the work.

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