Hundreds Of Guatemalan Citizens Sue Johns Hopkins University For Deliberate Infection With Venereal Diseases

After a judge allowed the case to move forward in August, 2017, the victims and their families are back in the news.

Patrick Semansky / AP Images

After a judge allowed the case to move forward in August, 2017, the victims and their families are back in the news.

In a case that is sadly reminiscent of the Nazi medical experiments on concentration camp victims, 842 Guatemalan citizens have sued the renowned American institution of higher learning, Johns Hopkins University, over the school’s alleged involvement in experiments that deliberately infected unsuspecting individuals with sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis and gonorrhea. The plaintiffs are seeking $1 billion in damages to be paid to the victims and their families.

The lawsuit was originally dismissed in 2016, but in August 2017, a U.S. federal judge allowed the case to continue, and a hearing on the defendants’ motion for preliminary case management was held on February 8, 2018. The purpose of the hearing was to establish a basis for managing discovery in the case.

Lawsuits, especially those involving governments and major institutions, usually take years to resolve and the participants often drift into obscurity, but thanks to investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson, who recently filed a report about the experiments on her Full Measure website on Sunday, April 29, 2018, the plight of these innocent human beings is back in the news.

The experiments were conducted in the Central American nation from 1945 until 1956 by the U.S. Public Health Service and involved the cooperation of some Guatemalan health officials. The experiments were led by Dr. John Charles Cutler, who was also involved in the infamous Tuskegee Experiments and the Terre Haute prison experiments.

The existence of the Guatemalan study is not disputed, and President Obama formally apologized to the nation of Guatemala on October 1, 2010, “offering profound apologies and asking pardon for the deeds of the 1940s.”

A man prays during a Mayan rain ceremony in Guatemala. Rodrigo Abd / AP Images

The lawsuit, which also names the Rockefeller Foundation and drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb, claims that the defendants facilitated the experiments by helping “design, support, encourage and finance” the infection of unsuspecting Guatemalans as young as 7 years old with various sexually transmitted diseases. The purpose of the experiments was to find vaccines to protect promiscuous American soldiers from venereal disease.

If there is an American hero in this profoundly disturbing case, it is Susan Reverby, a medical historian from Wellesley College, who discovered the Guatemalan experiments in 2010 while researching the deservedly infamous “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” which took place between 1932 and 1972.

Photo of a doctor doing blood draw from a subject in Tuskegee. U.S. Public Health Service / Wikimedia Commons - cropped and resized

As was the case in Guatemala, the Tuskegee study was conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Public Health Service, and it involved 622 poor African-American sharecroppers from Alabama, 431 of whom had contracted syphilis. The men were observed but untreated, even after Penicillin was discovered to be effective in curing the disease in the 1940s. As a result of this serious medical malpractice, 28 of the men died from syphilis, 100 men died from related complications, at least 40 of their wives were infected with the disease, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.

When Professor Reverby first viewed the evidence of the Guatemalan experiments, her reaction was absolute shock.

“He’s inoculating people with not only with syphilis but also gonorrhea and chancroid and other sexually transmitted diseases, I’m standing there like my mouth is dropping.”

History has already condemned the horrifying medical experiments of the Nazis, as well as those of the American doctors and researchers who were responsible for the Tuskegee Experiments and the Guatemalan study. As the case progresses through the American legal system, the victims and their families in Guatemala are still hoping for justice.