U.S. Public Health Service STD Experiments in Guatemala (1946–1948) and Their Aftermath

Kayte Spector-Bagdady, Paul A. Lombardo


The U.S. Public Health Service’s sexually transmitted disease (STD) experiments in Guatemala are an important case study not only in human subjects research transgressions but also in the response to serious lapses in research ethics. This case study describes how individuals in the STD experiments were tested, exposed to STDs, and exploited as the source of biological specimens—all without informed consent and often with active deceit. It also explores and evaluates governmental and professional responses that followed the public revelation of these experiments, including by academic institutions, professional organizations, and the U.S. federal government, pushing us to reconsider both how we prevent such lapses in the future and how we respond when they are first revealed.

SpectorBagdady K, Lombardo PA. U.S. Public Health Service STD Experiments in Guatemala (1946–1948) and Their Aftermath. Ethics & Human Research. 2019 Apr; 41(2): 29-34.

Mixed message from US government for victims of unethical medical research

From 1946 to 1948, American and Guatemalan physicians infected prostitutes and prisoners with syphilis without their knowledge or consent in order to test penicillin. The research was discovered by a Wellesley College professor in 2009, and lawyers for the victims filed a class-action lawsuit against the United States.  The Obama administration claims that the US is immune from such lawsuits, but has announced that it will spend $1 million to review new rules to protect medical research volunteers, $775,000 to fight sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala, and will develop a system to compensate anyone harmed in medical research.  Lawyers for the Guatemalan victims say that the promised action is inconsistent with the claim of immunity. [Washington Post]