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John Cutler’s Guatemala Syphilis "Experiments"

By James Donahue

There was an extension to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments on black men that has yet to be told. It seems that while Oliver Wenger’s team was torturing male syphilis victims at Tuskegee University in Alabama, Dr. John Cutler was doing the same thing in Guatemala.

There Cutler and his own team of U.S. Health Department workers "experimented" between 1946 and 1948 on an estimated 1,500 prison inmates, mental patients and soldiers who had no knowledge of what was being done to them.

There, in a program financed by a grant from the U. S. National Institutes of Health, the Pan American Sanitary Bureau and multiple Guatemalan government ministries, doctors purposefully infected soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners and mental patients with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The way it was done was diabolical. The prostitutes were infected with syphilis, gonorrhea and cancroid, and then turned loose on Guatemalan prison inmates, the mental patients and soldiers. None of the subjects gave consent for being part of the experiment.

The purpose of the study was to see how effective penicillin, a new drug on the market in 1947, was going to be on treating these sexually transmitted diseases. Most of the test subjects were treated, but about a third were not. An estimated 83 subjects died during the program or as a direct result.

Even though this was a government funded program, the findings were never published.

As stated earlier, the Guatemalan study was led by John Cutler. Cutler later participated in the last days of the Tuskegee experiment.

Cutler, whose involvement in the Guatemalan and Tuskegee experiments were kept secret until after his death, sent on to high office in the government. He served as acting chief of the venereal disease program for the Public Health Service. In 1954 he was placed in charge of experiments at Sing Sing prison to test a vaccine made from the killed syphilis bacterium would be effective against syphilis. In 1958 he was named assistant U.S. Surgeon General.

In 1967 Cutler was appointed professor of international health at the University of Pittsburgh, and acting dean of the Graduate School of Public Health. After his death in 2003, the university began a lecture series in his name. But when his role in the Tuskegee experiment came to light the series was discontinued.

Information about Cutler’s involvement in the Guatemalan experiments was uncovered by Professor Susan Mokotoff Reverby of Wellesley College, who was researching the Tuskegee syphilis study in 2005. Since then, the U. S. government has apologized to the Guatemalan government.

Human rights activists are now calling for compensation given to the families of the victims.