Much of this horrific history is 40 to 80 years old, but it is the backdrop
for a meeting in Washington this week by a presidential bioethics
commission. The meeting was triggered by the government's apology last fall
for federal doctors infecting prisoners and mental patients in Guatemala
with syphilis 65 years ago.
U.S. officials also acknowledged there had been dozens of similar
experiments in the United States - studies that often involved making
healthy people sick.
An exhaustive review by The Associated Press of medical journal reports and
decades-old press clippings found more than 40 such studies. At best, these
were a search for lifesaving treatments; at worst, some amounted to
curiosity-satisfying experiments that hurt people but provided no useful
Inevitably, they will be compared to the well-known Tuskegee syphilis study.
In that episode, U.S. health officials tracked 600 black men in Alabama who
already had syphilis but didn't give them adequate treatment even after
penicillin became available.
These studies were worse in at least one respect - they violated the concept
of "first do no harm," a fundamental medical principle that stretches back