u.s. admits infecting guatemalan mental patients with gonorrhea and syphilis in secret medical experiments

[redsock guest post]

The US government has admitted it infected up to 700 men and women in Guatemala in the 1940s, including institutionalized mental patients, with gonorrhea and syphilis without their knowledge in secret medical experiments.

Susan Reverby, a professor of women's studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, who has written extensively about the Tuskegee experiments, found the evidence while conducting further research. You can read some of Reverby's work, including this recent paper, here.

Amazingly, the NBC link above baldly admits that at the time, the US government
exerted a powerful influence in the Latin American country, largely in order to protect the interests of the American-based United Fruit Company. In 1954 the U.S. CIA helped overthrow Guatemala's democratically elected president because of land reforms that opposed the multinational corporation.

The list of incidents of the US government funding or conducting experiments on humans is quite long. No other country in human history has caused so much deliberate pain, misery, torture and death. Many of the studies were done by (or for) the US military and the subjects were often US citizens -- prisoners, regular citizens, and military personnel.

In the course of my 9/11 research, I have heard people claim that the US would never do anything (or allow anything to happen) to its own citizens. As though those in charge of the US would bother to make some distinction based on where people happened to be born. History says the truth is the exact opposite. Here is a super-small sample from this webpage (emphasis mine; I have also edited some entries for brevity):
From 1944-46, Dr. Alf Alving, a professor at the University of Chicago Medical School, purposely infected psychiatric patients at the Illinois State Hospital with malaria, so that he could test experimental malaria treatments. The study was conducted in conjunction with the US Army and the State Department.

In 1955, the CIA conducted a biological warfare experiment by releasing whooping cough bacteria from boats outside of Tampa Bay, causing an epidemic in the city, and killing at least 12 people.

In 1956-57, several US Army biological warfare experiments were conducted on the cities of Savannah, Georgia and Avon Park, Florida. Hundreds of residents contracted a wide array of illnesses, including fevers, respiratory problems, stillbirths, encephalitis, and typhoid. Army researchers pretended to be public health workers, so they could photograph and perform medical tests on the victims.

In 1966, the US Army released Bacillus globigii into the tunnels of the New York subway system as part of a field study called "A Study of the Vulnerability of Subway Passengers in New York City to Covert Attack with Biological Agents". A similar experiment was done in the Chicago subway system.

From 1946-53, at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Massachusetts, in an experiment sponsored by the US Atomic Energy Commission and the Quaker Oats corporation, 73 mentally disabled children were fed oatmeal containing radioactive calcium and other radioisotopes, in order to track "how nutrients were digested". The children were told that they were joining a "science club".

In the 1950s, researchers at the Medical College of Virginia performed experiments on burn victims, most of them poor and black, without their knowledge or consent, with funding from the Army and in collaboration with the AEC. Subjects were exposed to additional burning, experimental antibiotic treatment, and injections of radioactive isotopes 50 times the "acceptable" dose.

From 1948-54, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Hospital inserted radium rods into the noses of 582 Baltimore schoolchildren to determine the effects of radiation on hearing loss. Similar experiments were performed on over 7,000 US Army and Navy personnel during World War II.

Between 1960 and 1971, the Department of Defense funded non-consensual whole body radiation experiments on poor, black cancer patients. Consents forms were forged and the men were exposed to 100 rads of radiation (the equivalent of about 7,500 x-rays).

From 1942-44, the US Chemical Warfare Service exposed thousands of US military personnel to mustard gas, in order to test the effectiveness of gas masks and protective clothing. The military refused to pay disability benefits to the victims of the experiments.

From 1950-53, the US Army sprayed toxic chemicals over six cities in the United States and Canada, including Winnipeg, in order to test dispersal patterns of chemical weapons.

In 1967, the US Army paid [doctors] to apply skin-blistering chemicals to the faces and backs of inmates at Holmesburg Prison, near Philadelphia, to "learn how the skin protects itself against chronic assault from toxic chemicals". (In the 1960s, 33 pharmaceutical companies tested 153 experimental drugs at Holmesburg. When Dr. Albert Kligman, Professor of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, first saw the inmates and the potential they held for his research, he said, "All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time.")

In order to "perfect techniques for the abstraction of information from individuals, whether willing or not", Project Bluebird researchers dosed over 7,000 US military personnel with LSD, without their knowledge or consent. More than 1,000 of these soldiers later suffered from several psychiatric illnesses, including depression and epilepsy, as a result of the tests. Many of them tried to commit suicide.

From 1963-69, the US Army sprayed thousands of US military personnel aboard ships with various biological and chemical warfare agents. The personnel were not notified of the tests, and were not given any protective clothing. Chemicals tested on the US military personnel included the nerve gases VX and Sarin and toxic chemicals such as zinc cadmium sulfide and sulfur dioxide.


During the Nuremberg trials, several Nazi doctors and scientists claimed that the inspiration for their studies had come from studies that they had seen performed in the United States. In 1945, the US government recruited 1,600 Nazi scientists, many of whom had performed horrific human experimentation in Nazi concentration camps. The scientists were offered immunity from any war crimes in return for doing research for the United States government. Many of the Nazi scientists continued their human experimentation when they arrived in the US.

The wiki page notes that, as of 2007, not a single US government researcher has ever been prosecuted for human experimentation.

[L: Warning: comments contain some details of torture that took place in Guatemala; readers may find some comments triggering.]


Stephanie said...


But we've known the US has meddled in Latin America far too long School of Assasins (err Americas)). But this kind of medical experimentation is particularly sickening!!

Thanks for this excellent post Redsock!

redsock said...

I left out that the US also apologized to Guatemala, because who the fuck cares that they said "sorry"?

That wiki page is pretty gruesome reading.

L-girl said...

How the story broke - the headlines - as "US apologizes for...". Well then. All better now.

L-girl said...

This book is on my to-read list. I read the short version in Kinzer's book "Overthrow" - which I highly recommend.

L-girl said...

Who was the government employee who committed suicide - jumped out his office window - believing he was going insane, tormented by hallucinations... and later his children proved he was the subject/victim of govt LSD experiments? His surviving family was publicizing it a while back... and now I can't remember the details.


That "acres of skin" quote is absolutely nauseating. We use the word "Nazi" too easily, but that is Nazi-like.

redsock said...

Frank Olson.

Maybe not suicide. Looks like the CIA murdered him because it feared he would talk to the press about various biological warfare and chemical interrogation programs.

L-girl said...

Thanks. Of course, even if it was technically suicide, it was murder.

This story really shook me. I thought about what it might have been like to be him.

DavidHeap said...

The justly infamous Tuskegee experiment is the textbook case we use when teaching research ethics (as in, what not to do...) but clearly it is just the tip of a very nasty, gruesome iceberg. One is tempted to ask, is there anything the U.S. government would NOT do to people, if they thought they could get away with it?

L-girl said...

Pretty sure we all know the answer to that.

L-girl said...

Another thing I frequently hear that boggles my mind, in light of all this, is "[X] couldn't have happened, because no one in the US government can keep a secret."

If I had a dollar for every time I've read that in the Cdn progressive blogosphere... well, I'd have several dollars.

WHERE do people get that from? What makes them think or say such a thing, as day after day, month after year, more facts come out that were previously hidden???

deang said...

As horrible as this is, I have to ask why this and why now, rather than other, more recent, better known atrocities the US has helped perpetrate in that country. Peaking in the 80s, the US not only taught torture techniques to Guatemalan military men at the School of the Americas but also provided on-the-spot oversight to the genocidal campaign of torture and slaughter there. If numerous reports from Guatemalan torture survivors are to be believed, American-accented and American-looking military men were watching and sometimes commenting on the torture techniques being used on Guatemalans during the late 70s-early 90s.

Besides Amnesty International, the Americans Jennifer Harbury and Sister Dianna Ortiz are best known for making the world aware of this. Harbury's Guatemala Mayan husband was kidnapped and tortured for years (including being put in a full body cast so he couldn't escape drug injections and electricity) and Harbury eventually found out that the US knew about it all along and may have been involved in it. Ortiz, a US nun doing social work in Guatemala, was kidnapped by police/soldiers, tortured and raped multiple times in the presence of an American, suspended over a pit of moaning people in various stages of mutilation, and after her escape was smeared by the US government for her efforts to find out what happened and how the US was involved.

Why not apologize for the 1980s torture at the same time they're apologizing for the 1940s medical experiments (after they've fully admitted to it, of course)? Or might reference to US involvement in torture be too embarrassing in a time when the US is torturing people throughout the world, not to mention interfering in other Latin American countries via their police and military (as in the police coup in Ecuador last week)?

(and I'm sorry this is so long again, L; I know I'm violating one of your comment guidelines - the "link and brief summary" one. It really is shorter than it was a few minutes ago, if that makes any difference.)

redsock said...

As horrible as this is, I have to ask why this and why now

I think because Reverby's article is about to be published.

L-girl said...

Dean, you are violating nothing and I welcome your comments. If you want to come back and post the parts you deleted, please do.

I was anticipating your reaction to this "news," but this is not what I was expecting. Please don't censor yourself on my account.

L-girl said...

However, I shouldn't have read Dean's comments before going to bed, violating my own rule of anxiety and sleep issues. Not Dean's fault, my own for going back for details.

deang said...

I think because Reverby's article is about to be published.

That's what I think, too, and the medical experiments outlined in the article may be too incriminating to be easily denied or ignored. But the US government and press routinely ignore other things of enormous importance that the US has done so I still wonder why. Maybe I'm just not seeing things clearly. But please understand that I'm not meaning to belittle this important information and surprising apology. I am very happy that it's being talked about and am astounded that an apology has been offered.

deang said...

Not Dean's fault

Maybe partially my fault. I suspect I know which details are keeping you up and I know before I write such things that it could have the same effect on other people that it had on me. If it helps any, I didn't even include everything done to just these two people (and similar things were done to countless thousands in that country). The first time I read about what was done to Harbury's husband in detail, I was on an airplane and I nearly passed out and almost threw up at the same time, waking up my deep-sleeping travel companion as I got dizzy from the horror of it and slumped onto her. On the positive side, it was the horror of US-supported torture in Guatemala that got me motivated enough to get into activism at all - nothing like what you've done, but more than I'd ever done before. Maybe these medical experiment revelations will do that for other people.

L-girl said...

Dean, I know we've talked about this before, both of us having a physical, visceral reaction to learning details of torture. In my case it was learning some Holocaust details as a child in Hebrew school.

Now torture seems to be the one place I can't let my mind go in any detail and dwell on for any length of time. I have friends who can't be exposed to cruelty to animals in books or movies (something I understand very well). For me, it's torture.

I don't mean people who want to live in their own la-la land and pretend such evils don't exist. I do see a lot of that - co-workers who say, "I don't pay attention to current events, they're too depressing." Frankly, I despise that.

I guess it's recognizing our own emotional capacity, avoiding triggers, in order to keep on keepin' on.

Anonymous said...

Good job, America, for apologising with your mouth.

Now apologise with your chequebook by paying just compensation to the people harmed.

I assume that will happen about the time Jason Kenney resigns. Both of which will happen about the time Hell freezes over.

Stephanie said...

Here is some more coverage from Democracy Now.