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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Guatemalan Prisoners Infected with Syphilis

In 1946, hundreds of Guatemalan prisoners were infected with syphilis by American doctors in order to test penicillin.

A few important things to note about the Guatemalan Sphyilis Experiment include:

> Dr. John Charles Cutler, from the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment in the US, had a major role;

> A major difference between Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and the Guatemalan Spyhilis Experiment is that the Guatemalan prisoners were purposely infected;

> The National Institute of Health (NIH) paid syphilis-carrying prostitutes to infect the prisoners who were involved in the study; if the prostitutes could not infect the prisoners, open sores were created and the infection was administered;

> Both experiments were carried out to test the ability of penicillin.

In the mid-twentieth century, there were very a few ethical and legal regulations about performing experiments and taking samples from patients by today’s standards. The treatment of people like the prisoners from Guatemala and Henrietta Lacks’s story is deplorable and extremely unethical. However, their situations did force organizations and governments to step up and make sure participants in the future would be safe.

For more information about the Guatemalan Syphilis Experiment, check out the New York Times article from October 1, 2010.

Elizabeth Huggins
Graduate Student
School of Library Science

16 thoughts on “Guatemalan Prisoners Infected with Syphilis

  1. This is very dreadful thing to experiment on innocent prisoners; even prisoners are human like us. Its not at all an encouraging thing. Aggressively the government should take initiate and save the future innocent participants.

  2. There was a lot of crazy experiments going on in those days. I recently watched a new movie with andrian brody in it about a mock prison experiement that goes haywire. The really strange thing is that this actually ocurred in the Stanford Prison Experiment. The guards ended up going out of control and abusing the volunteers.

  3. This kind of experiments are absurd, yet similar to The Third Reich, 1933-1945, was arguably the most heinous regime in history. Comprised of some equally malevolent characters, like Joseph Mengele. Question to ask?

  4. It's not crazy to think that this was done at a time when testing needed to be done. However, experiments like this should not be done on those unwilling to participate.

  5. Very interesting Elizabeth. I wonder what was the legality of prostitution in Guatemala in those days? If it was a crime… how ironic would it be? Paying prostitutes to INFECT supposed criminals.