John C. Cutler, Tuskegee and Guatemalan Syphilis Doctor, in His Own Words

Historians in the News

Many media outlets have noted that John C. Cutler, the late doctor who led the U.S. Public Health Service syphilis experiment on Guatemalan inmates and later participated in the Tuskegee experiment, defended the latter well into the 1990s, most famously for a 1993 PBS Nova documentary entitled The Deadly Deception.

Cutler: The Tuskegee study has been grossly misunderstood and misrepresented this way. And the fact was that it was concern for the black community, trying to set the stage for the best public health approach possible and the best therapy, that led to the study being carried out….

We were dealing with a very important study that was going to have the long-term results of which were actually to improve the quality of care for the black community so that these individuals were actually contributing to the work towards the improvement of the health of the black community rather than simply serving as merely guinea pigs for the study. And of course I was bitterly opposed to killing off the study for obvious reasons.

A graduate of Western Reserve University Medical School, Cutler joined the Public Health Service in 1942. His service at the Public Health Veneral Disease Research Laboratory, his obituary blandly notes, "led to his appointment to head a venereal disease research program of the Pan American Sanitary Bureau in Guatemala in 1948."

In fact, Cutler was involved with the project when it began in 1946. The PHS, along with the National Institutes of Health, the aforementioned Pan American Sanitary Bureau and the Guatemalan government, selected prisoners, mental patients, and soldiers to deliberately infect with syphilis (often with the assistance of prostitutes). Unlike in Tuskegee, the subjects of this experiment received doses of penicillin after they were infected, but it is not clear whether all of the subjects were cured. "The PHS," wrote Susan Reverby, the Wellesley College professor who discovered the records of the experiment, "was aware... that this was a study that would raise ethical questions."

Cutler's wife, Eliese Cutler, assisted her husband in the administration of the experiment. "She 'got to know the patients and helped keep things straight,' while also photographing them and the inoculations for the record."

Cutler joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health in 1967 as a professor of international health, serving as acting dean from 1968-1969. He left teaching in 1985, but remained a frequent presence at Pitt until his death in 2003. The GSPH sponsored a John C. Cutler Memorial Lecture in Public Health from 2007-2008. Eliese Cutler is listed as a donor in the $5,000-$9,999 to the GSPH.

"He was a pioneer who had firsthand experiences of living and working in the Third World," said a colleague of his after his death.

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