Judge Dismisses Suit Brought on Behalf of STD Subjects in Study Uncovered by Wellesley's Susan Reverby

July 23, 2012

In 2010, Professor Susan Reverby, Marion Butler McLean Professor in the History of Ideas, uncovered evidence that American scientists had deliberately infected prisoners and patients in a mental hospital in Guatemala with syphilis in the 1940s. Despite outrage for what has been called a "reprehensible act," the case will not go to trial. In June, a federal court dismissed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the Guatemalans affected by the experiments.

The suit was filed after Reverby's findings revealed that Guatemalan prisoners, mental patients, female sex workers, soldiers, and orphans were deliberately and without consent infected with syphilis by researchers studying the effects of penicillin, a relatively new drug at the time. Strict regulations today make clear that it is unethical to experiment on people without their consent and require special steps for any work with vulnerable populations, but such regulations did not exist in the 1940s.

Reverby discovered the secret experiment while reviewing the records of Dr. John Cutler, a prominent government scientist of the 1940s. She was researching the Tuskegee experiment for her book, "Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy" (2009). Her discovery prompted U.S. officials to issue an apology.

According to the Associated Press, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said Reverby's study—the U.S. Public Health Service Sexually Transmitted Disease Inoculation Study of 1946-1948—uncovered “a deeply troubling chapter in our nation’s history,” but, according to the Associated Press, ruled that federal law bars claims based on injuries that occurred in a foreign country.

Professor Reverby is a historian of American health care, women, race, and public health with a focus on equality and ethics.