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'Ethically Impossible:' Revisiting The Guatemalan Syphilis Experiments08:59
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(e-MagineArt.com/Flickr)
(e-MagineArt.com/Flickr)

It was just another day in the archives for Susan Reverby, a professor of Women and Gender Studies at Wellesley College.

She was doing what historians do, reading dead people's mail. But from one moment to the next, Reverby had uncovered a grisly moment in United States history.

"I was there with my partner," she remembered, "and he's a physicist. He was doing calculations on the other table and I ran over to him and I said 'Bill, oh my God, oh my God — look at this.'"

Reverby has spent much of her career studying the medical experiments conducted at Tuskegee, but that day's discovery would take her far away from Alabama, into Guatemala.

She had come across a box of papers from John Cutler, a former professor at the University of Pittsburgh. After combing through correspondence and research documents, she learned that a group of American scientists had done the unthinkable and intentionally infected Guatemalans with venereal diseases without their consent.

"I think the sentence that really through me off my chair more than anything else," Reverby said, "was a letter from a colleague who said, 'I talked to the Surgeon General and he says we couldn't do this in the United States.'"

The aim of the experiment was to investigate the use of penicillin to treat and prevent infection, but only 700 of those infected — including patients in mental institutions, commercial sex workers, prisoners and members of the Guatemalan army — were given treatment. By 1953, ten years after the beginning of the study, 83 Guatemalans had died.

The United States formally apologized to the country of Guatemala in 2010 and President Obama asked the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to investigate the study.

Earlier this month, the commission released their findings and recommendations. We spoke with Susan Reverby one year ago, shortly after her findings became public, and she joins us again today to review the Commission's findings.

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This segment aired on September 26, 2011.

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