From [HERE] and [HERE] and [MORE] Hundreds of individuals on Wednesday filed suit [complaint, PDF] for medical malpractice against Johns Hopkins University for its role in government medical experiments that took place in Guatemala in the 1940s and 50s. During this time, individuals were deliberately infected with venereal diseases, including syphilis and gonorrhea, without their consent. The individuals were told that they were undergoing "routine medical tests" and that the medication they were being administered was "for their own good."
The lawsuit, which also names the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation, alleges that both institutions helped “design, support, encourage and finance” the experiments by employing scientists and physicians involved in the tests, which were designed to ascertain if penicillin could prevent the diseases.
The suit also claims that predecessor companies of the pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb supplied penicillin for use in the experiments, which they knew to be both secretive and non-consensual.
The experiments, which occurred between 1945 and 1956, were kept secret until they were discovered in 2010 by a college professor, Susan Reverby.
The experiments were allegedly targeted at "children, soldiers, prison inmates, psychiatric hospital patients, and orphans." The suit was filed on behalf of 774 former research subjects and their families and seeks $1 billion in damages. According to the complaint, officials at Johns Hopkins had "substantial influence" over the studies, including advising the federal government on how to spend research funds. Specifically, it alleges that Johns Hopkins, along with other named defendants "participated in, approved, encouraged, directed, and aided and abetted human subject experiments in Guatemala."
Included within the legal claim are graphic descriptions of some of the methods used by the researchers to infect their subjects:
During the experiments the following occurred:
- Prostitutes were infected with venereal disease and then provided for sex to subjects for intentional transmission of the disease;
- Subjects were inoculated by injection of syphilis spirochaetes into the spinal fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord, under the skin, and on mucous membranes;
- An emulsion containing syphilis or gonorrhoea was spread under the foreskin of the penis in male subjects;
- The penis of male subjects was scraped and scarified and then coated with the emulsion containing syphilis or gonorrhea;
- A woman from the psychiatric hospital was injected with syphilis, developed skin lesions and wasting, and then had gonorrhoeal pus from a male subject injected into both of her eyes and;
- Children were subjected to blood studies to check for the presence of venereal disease.
The then secretary of state Hillary Clinton apologised for the programme in 2010 after a presidential bioethics commission investigation found the experiments “involved unconscionable basic violations of ethics”. [MORE]
News of these experiments came to light in 2010 [NYT report]. It was closely followed by an apology by Barack Obama [Reuters report] to the president of Guatemala and a lawsuit [JURIST report] on behalf of seven Guatemalans who claimed that they had been the subject of non-consensual human medical experimentation by the US Public Health Service [official website]. That challenge was dismissed [JURIST report] by a judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website], as the US government is specifically exempt from liability for torts that occur outside of the US. Although the presiding judge acknowledged that "the Guatemala Study is a deeply troubling chapter in our Nation's history," he found that the court had no authority to provide relief. While news of the experiments came out in 2010, the specific details of the experiments remained hidden until the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues published its report [text] in 2011.
Baltimore-based attorney for the plaintiffs Paul Bekman told the Guardian that of the 774 claimants, about 60 were direct survivors of the programme. Many have died as a result of deliberate infection and others had passed on disease to family members and partners.
“The people who are responsible [for carrying out the research] now are long dead,” said Bekman “But the records are there, and we have detailed documentation that supports the allegations in our complaint.”