The Guatemala Syphilis Experiment: An Interview with Susan Reverby

tags: Guatemala

David Austin Walsh is the assistant editor of HNN.

Susan M. Reverby is the Marion Butler McLean Professor in the History of Ideas and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College. Her article “‘Normal Exposure’ and Inoculation Syphilis:  A PHS ‘Tuskegee’ Doctor in Guatemala, 1946-48,” which is to appear in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Policy History, detailed the history of an experiment conducted by U.S. government researchers that deliberately infected Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients with syphilis.

The revelation sparked an apology from Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to the people of Guatemala for the “clearly unethical” experiments.  One of the leaders of the Guatemalan experiments, John C. Cutler, was also a researcher with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

This interview was conducted via telephone.

David Walsh:  You found the records of the Guatemalan syphilis experiment in the papers of Dr. John Cutler.  Were you expecting to find them?

Susan Reverby:  No.  I had gone to the University of Pittsburgh archives to look in the papers of Thomas Parran, who was the surgeon general during the beginning of the Tuskegee study [Parran served as surgeon general from 1936 to 1948].  I expected to find more material around the context of that study.  I realized while I was there that John Cutler had taught at the University of Pittsburgh public health school and that he had been one of the major researchers for the Tuskegee study, so I went and looked at his papers.  There was nothing on Tuskegee in his papers.  The only thing that was there were records of the Guatemala study.

Walsh:  Right, right.

Reverby:  So I was doing what we historians do for a living.  I was opening those boxes and I had no idea what I was going to find.

Walsh:  The Guatemala experiment is obliquely mentioned in his [Cutler’s] obituary, but it hadn’t been publicized before your discovery, is that correct?

Reverby:  No, I think they just said in his obituary that he worked in Guatemala.  That’s all they said.  There was one small article on the blood tests that appeared in Spanish, but they didn’t find enough to really have a report, so he didn’t publish.  He published about fifty other articles, but he never wrote on this.

Walsh:  At the American Association for the History of Medicine conference, all the press reports have said that you presented this paper but there wasn’t a whole lot of interest at the conference, and I just find this absolutely incredible…

Reverby:  It’s actually a funny story—and academics will appreciate this.  I was on the last session of the last day (laughs).  So you can blame the program committee.  On the last session of the last day, it’s in Rochester, Minnesota…

Walsh:  At the Mayo Clinic, I’m assuming?

Reverby:  At the Mayo, right.  On a Sunday afternoon.  So you know what happens with historians, everybody was on their way home!  (laughs)  It’s problem that everybody who’s ever been put on the last session of the last day has experienced.  There were maybe twenty-five people in the audience, and they were pretty horrified, but it’s not like historians get surprised by this stuff.  It’s not like we would all have gone to the National Inquirer immediately afterward.  It’s not what we do.  Anyway, after the conference I wrote it up for the Journal of Policy History.

Walsh:  And how did David Sencer get involved in all of this?

Reverby:  Well, I had interviewed David—he’s the former director of the Centers for Disease Control—over the Tuskegee study, and we had stayed in contact, so when I finished the paper I sent him a copy in late June.  Frankly, it was to ask him to look at the science and make sure I had it right. 

He wrote back to me and said  “do you mind if I give it to some people at the CDC now?  They shouldn’t be blindsided when this comes out.”  I said of course.  I always share information.  One of the things to think about is historians tend not to treat their material as if it were about to get the Nobel Prize, and I come from a culture where you share materials.  I have always done that, so naturally I said “of course” to David. 

From there, it went up the chain of command within the CDC.  They sent out their leading syphilologist, actually, to look at the paper, and that was the best peer review you could imagine—the syphilis expert at CDC said I wasn’t wrong!

Walsh:  When did you get wind of the public apology?

Reverby:  About a week ago.  And actually—this is hilarious—I wrote to David on Thursday and said there’s not going to be any coverage.  I figured Rahm Emanuel would suck all the political air out!

Walsh:  It’s fascinating.

Reverby:  It is fascinating.  And here’s the problem (I’ll probably end up writing about this):  the story fits the trope of a really bad B-movie.

Walsh:  What do you mean by that?

Reverby:  Well, you know—the horrible doctor trope.  It’s like the Island of Dr. Moreau.  It fits our kind of… collective historical understanding of the worst of science and I think that’s part of it.  It’s always easy to plug into that kind of story.  My attempt is to put it in context and to make people understand the institutional aspects of this, which is much harder.  Everyone wants to make him [Cutler] into a monster.

Walsh:  And that’s an interesting point.  How should we remember John Cutler?  How do we place him in our collective memory?  This is a guy that, as you said, wrote fifty articles…  When you watch him on the PBS documentary Deadly Deception, it’s clear that he really believed that he was helping people in a very roundabout sort of way.

Reverby:  He did.  I think that’s why it’s important not to see him as a monster, but to understand the institutional context in which the war—he saw it as a war on syphilis, so he saw these people as soldiers, and people die in a war.  And I think that’s the key to understand him.  And so the real issue for us—our job as historians is to provide the context, not just the facts, but how to understand them.  That’s what we have to do here.

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