Soldiers have always had a problem with sexually transmitted diseases. In the 1940s, there was “excitement” about what penicillin could achieve, writes Donald McNeil in The New York Times about the report of Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Neither of the standard preventive treatments of the day, calomel lotion and squirting silver proteinate up the urethra, were terribly effective nor pleasant.
The excitement led to experiments that began in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana with consent by and payment for participants. Putting lab-grown gonorrhea on the prisoners’ penises, however, turned out to be impossible to do consistently, McNeil writes.
Penicillin grew to be the effective treatment for syphillis and it was adopted as the U.S. Army’s standard treatment. A fellow with the U.S. Public Health Service, Juan Funes, who had been responsible for a government-run health clinic for prostitutes in Guatemala City, came up with the idea to do venereal disease research in Guatemala. John C. Cutler, the doctor responsible for the work in Indiana, “embraced the idea” and set out to organize it.
There was a “startling array of public health luminaries” involved in the experiments in Guatemala, McNeil reports. Lapses by medical and legal officials led to experiments that were “gross violations of ethics” according to the commission.
In our next post, we will offer a bit more and some excerpts from the report by the White House bioethics panel.