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The Real Lessons from Medicine’s Long History of Human Experiments in Syphilis

Tuskegee By Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill

Yesterday, the heads of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) joined the chorus of senior administration officials apologizing for human medical experiments on Guatemalan men in the 1940s. Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Drs Thomas Frieden and Francis Collins excoriated their predecessors who approved experiments in which Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients were infected with syphilis without their knowledge or consent in order to test new syphilis treatments, most of which involved penicillin. The Guatemalan experiments were funded with a grant from NIH and conducted by investigators from a laboratory in the Public Health Service (PHS) that later became a part of the CDC. According to Frieden and Collins,

While effective protections against unethical research continue to evolve across the world, the past exploitations of vulnerable populations, including the subjects of the study in Guatemala in the 1940s, are regrettable and deeply saddening. For them, the basic ethical principle of respect for persons was flagrantly violated [emphasis added]. The NIH and CDC are committed to ensuring that lessons drawn from the past help shape actions to protect all future research participants, no matter where studies are conducted.The 1946-1948 inoculation study should never have happened, and nothing like it should ever happen again.

Following more heavily publicized apologies last week from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Frieden and Collins’ editorial seems like an afterthought. Perhaps that is why the main message of their essay strikes such a discordant note. “Could such unethical studies happen today?” ask the two men. “For research funded or conducted by the US government, the answer is no.”

Viewed in context, their confident answer seems oddly defiant. To be sure, they cite an impressive array of safeguards put in place over the last sixty years—from the Nuremburg Code to the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights—as evidence for their reassurances to JAMA’s core audience--current members of the American Medical Association, the largest collection of providers of American health services--that all is well.

But should the rest of us, consumers of health services from members of the AMA (and consumers too of scientific research from NIH and CDC), trust them?

Comparing the Guatemala and Tuskegee Projects

The revelations of the barbaric Guatemalan project have brought back into the news another sordid episode in American medical history, the infamous study of “Untreated Syphilis in the Male Negro,” popularly known as the Tuskegee Project. In this thirty year effort, PHS researchers observed a population of 400 poor, black men from rural Alabama who were infected with syphilis to see how the disease affected their health

That the two studies were close cousins is borne out by the fact that the lead investigator on the Guatemalan effort, John C. Cutler, was also an active member of the Tuskegee team.  Comparing the two projects is instructive. Unlike the Guatemalan project, the Tuskegee study subjects were never infected with syphilis; by contrast, most of the Guatemalan subjects did in fact receive treatment (including penicillin) while the Tuskegee subjects were intentionally left untreated. These differences went back to the reason each study was designed in the first place: the Guatemalan researchers, working from 1946-48, wanted a well-controlled test of the effectiveness of a revolutionary new therapeutic, penicillin, as a syphilis treatment; the Tuskegee researchers, beginning in 1932 before the 1944 discovery of penicillin’s therapeutic application to syphilis, wanted to observe the natural course of syphilis infection in patients who were left untreated.

As the Guatemalan study has been disclosed, the ethical lapses of these two syphilis studies have been treated as indistinguishable. At the time, however, they were seen quite differently. The Guatemalan project was never disclosed and never published. Those involved discussed their discomfort openly. Cutler’s supervisor wrote in 1948, ““I am a bit, in fact more than a bit, leery of the experiment with the insane people. They cannot give consent, do not know what is going on, and if some goody organization got wind of the work, they would raise a lot of smoke.”

By contrast, the Tuskegee team was immensely proud of their work. They published twelve papers in peer reviewed journals between 1936 and 1964: the last two of these were published in journals of the American Medical Association. And the research team was clearly proud of their work, praising themselves for their “quality of dedication to the ideal of a long-term study based upon love of and respect for the dignity of the individual within the group, and upon the satisfaction of making a single, valuable contribution to the increment of knowledge, without concern for credit…”

It took many years (from the late 1950s, at the latest, to 1972) for the PHS to realize that withholding penicillin from a black man infected with syphilis wasn’t respectful of his dignity.

Judging the Ethics of Medical Experiments in Hindsight

Looking back, the Tuskegee Project is indefensible in virtually every respect. But there is one intriguing feature of the study design that has long been overlooked. Before it became obvious that penicillin stopped the syphilitic spirochete, treponema pallidus, in its tracks, the act of keeping approved treatments away from syphilis patients actually did them less harm than good. Because for centuries, the standard of care for syphilis treatment involved the internal administration of an extremely toxic compound, mercuric chloride, a practice that continued into the 1950s.

Yes, you heard that right. So let’s say it again.

For centuries, syphilis doctors gave their patients mercuric chloride as a medicine. First they gave it as a liquid. Then, starting in the 1860s, frustrated that their patients kept dying, doctors began administering mercuric chloride injections to their syphilis patients.

Nowhere in the Frieden and Collin’s JAMA editorial is this practice, so obviously barbaric today, condemned or even mentioned. Yet there is little doubt that the toll of human suffering (many thousands of fatalities) at the hands of the medical profession from mercuric chloride, the approved standard of care for syphilis at the time, was far greater in comparison to the victim count of the despicable PHS experiments, mere hundreds of syphilis-infected Guatemalans and untreated Alabamans.

One might be tempted to say that at least one bright ethical line here was the act of infection itself: that any doctor who deliberately infected a patient with a dangerous microbe violated their oath as a physician. Yet oddly enough, even the deliberate introduction of a dangerous microbe was fair territory for syphilis doctors in those days. Indeed, Julius Wagner-Jauregg won the 1927 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his idea of infecting syphilis patients with malaria. Wagner-Jauregg’s proposal (which may actually have helped in some cases) was that the high fevers of malaria could kill the syphilitic spirochete in the brain when mercuric chloride (and also arsenic) medicines couldn’t reach that far.

Today, treatments of mercuric chloride and malaria are treated by the medical profession not with public apologies but rather a kind of embarrassed silence. As one historian notes, the idea of breeding “colonies of malarial mosquitoes with which to infect tertiary syphilitics and so burn the offending parasites from their brains” doesn’t look very good with the benefit of hindsight. As we argue in our book, The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine and a Manmade Epidemic, most historic uses of mercury don’t look very good either.

So what’s the real difference between therapies that merit a Nobel Prize and those that elicit public apologies from our countries’ top medical leaders? Interestingly, the Tuskegee Project, which for a time mostly benefited its subjects by withholding the approved therapies of arsenic and mercury injections, has come under fire largely because of its failure to treat the infected men regardless of the safety or efficacy of the approved treatment.  So what does that tell us about how the medical profession distinguishes between ethical and unethical acts?

The main distinction appears to be whether or not the medical profession approved of the treatment at the time.

Seen this way, should the assurances offered by Frieden and Collins persuade us that “the basic ethical principle of respect for persons” is so well entrenched that we are now safe from human experiments designed by the medical profession? What about the largest human experiment ever conducted in America: the unprecedented, uncontrolled, untested expansion of the childhood immunization program that started around 1990? When it comes to ethics, it would appear we are safe only from those experiments of which the doctors who set today’s medical standards don’t approve. For those approved treatments that we learn many years later to be barbaric, the watchword remains, “buyer beware.”

As for the current experiment--one that dwarfs Guatemala and Tuskegee in both its scale and its hubris--it would appear that medical authorities are content to continue the experiment as long as they can convince themselves (as they did for years with arsenic and mercuric chloride injections for syphilis) that it is unethical to measure rigorously the overall impact of the experiment: by comparing total health outcomes in untreated patients with those who are treated. Unfortunately for the subjects of the experiment, these doctors believe that “respect for persons” requires that otherwise healthy American infants receive every single ounce of treatment  new medical technology can provide them.

Dan Olmsted is Editor and Mark Blaxill is Editor-At-Large of Age of Autism. They are co-authors of The Age Of Autism Mercury, Medicine and a Manmade Epidemic.



Descendants of black men who were 'treated' with FAKE drugs in racist syphilis study are calling for justice 45 years after nightmare was exposed

Read more:

Pharma for Prison


L Land

Look down to main AoA page to the article about forcing Gardisal on girls in the juvenile justice system to quickly find how this continues.


Again, you are way over simplifying this issue.

"We therefore decided to test the effects of both female and male hormones on the neurotoxicity of thimerosal. The results were eye-opening. For example, 50 nanomolar thimerosal causes less than 5% neuron death within the first three hours incubation and 1 micromolar testosterone causes no significant death within this time frame. However, mix these two together and 100% neuron death was observed at the earliest time point checked. This represents a severe enhancement of thimerosal toxicity (see Figure 6). Further, at 12 hours the neuron death effected by 50 nanomolar thimerosal alone could be reversed by 1 micromolar estrogen. Estrogen also significantly reduced the testosterone enhanced toxicity of thimerosal."

Quoted from the affidavit of Dr. Boyd Haley, Professor and Chair, Department of Chemistry, University of Kentucky, to congress on August 13, 2002

Make a dose of mercury that will kill 1 out of 100 rats. Then make a dose of lead that will kill 1 out of 1000 rats. Combine the doses and 100% of exposed rats will die.

Given the fact that injected Thimerosal solutions are definitely toxic to:
 Developing humans at levels less than 0.01 μg of Thimerosal/kg/day (< 0.005 μg of mercury/kg/day), and
 Adult humans at levels less than 0.1 μg of Thimerosal/kg/day (< 0.05 μg of mercury /kg/day),
it is obvious that Thimerosal cannot safely be used as preservative in vaccines nor, for that mat-ter, used as an in-process sterilant unless the maximum residual level does not exceed 0.001 μg [1 nanogram] of Thimerosal per dose.

Your comment referring to drowning in a pool as a comparison to no longer being able to drink a glass of water is disingenuous at best.

Sicko agendas


Fine: you can give it to your kid, but keep it away from mine.


Well unfortunately my replies are getting deleted, I guess facts are unwelcome here, but I will say this:

"We did learn (quite slowly, sadly enough) how dangerous mercury is, but we did not put that knowledge into practice today."

The amounts of mercury used to treat syphilis were so vastly higher than those used in vaccines that there is no comparison.

It's like saying that because you can drown in a swimming pool, you shouldn't drink a glass of water.

John Stone

Sorry, corrected:-

I remember having shivers of discomfort -even a premonition - when Blair introduced Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK in January 2001. It was before the worst excesses of the post 9/11 era and yet to see an entire ruling class gathering before the cameras to say "Er, well we are basically alright" (as Blair might have put it) was strangely repulsive, and an act of vacuous complacence rather than commemoration. Let us have pious deeds not pious sentiments.

John Stone

I remember having shivers of discomfort -even a premonition - when Blair introduced Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK in January 2001. It was before the worst excesses of the post 9/11 era and yet to see an entire ruling gathering before the cameras to say "Er, well we are basically alright" (as Blair might have put it) was strangely repulsive, and an act of vacuous complacence rather than commemoration. Let us have pious deeds not pious sentiments.

michael framson

There is a monstrous deficit of humility in medicine. I think for most physicians it takes about 30 years worth of injuring and killing patients, as few as possible, to acquire and acknowledge their humility. For some it never will happen.

As long as medicine remains first and foremost a business, ethics will never be a word with much application.


it is more than questioning, as you put it, "those crazy old-time doctors..." It is a matter of learning from medical practices of those times also. We did learn (quite slowly, sadly enough) how dangerous mercury is, but we did not put that knowledge into practice today. It has simply been kept away in old medical literature waiting. Waiting. Waiting. We are suppose to learn from our mistakes. NOT repeat them. Mercury in any form should not be injected into children. And yes, we are blessed to live in a world with penicillin. Amen.
Your reply of chosing between malaria and syphillis remionds me of what I hear so often..."I'd rather have a child with autism than a dead child..." Your answer is way over simplifying what we are dealing with.


To me it's also unethical that this has been buried, that one of the most infamous experiments ever conducted actually showed that a "healthcare" intervention had been doing more harm than good for centuries.

It would also be unethical to not compare and publicize the health of children who received the full Hg containing vaccine schedule of the 1990s vs. those never vaccinated, even though retrospectively. It was unethical, although maybe not done with much consciousness of a state of experimentation, to expose infants to untested vaccine combinations in the first place, but even more wrong to now bury adverse results.

The history of mercury use in "medicine" clearly shows a tendency to uphold ignorance, and then repeat the mistakes of the past.

Adam M

Oops! Its pps. 106 -108 in The Vaccine Manual

Adam M

The book Vaccine Safety Manual documents on the use of anti-fertility vaccines by WHO in the early 1990's in Mexico, Nicaragua and the Philippines. Eye opening.


its still happening

any drug that worries people by its illegal experimantation with shouldnt be used at all!


medical experiments on the unsuspecting are continuing in places like Africa


I wrote here over a year ago that the practice of medicine has hardly changed since the time that barber-surgeons practiced bloodletting.

Sure, technology has made strides, but the mindset is almost unchanged.

Carolyn M

Any medical provider who sees nothing wrong with injecting a newborn child with the Hep B vaccine without that child's parents' prior knowledge and consent cannot be trusted. Nor can those medical providers who complain vociferously concerning the time spent in discussion of vaccines with parents who have concerns about vaccinating their child.

Ethical medical providers would be perfectly willing to discuss any and ALL medical procedures being considered for a child with his/her parents prior to the procedure being performed.

Theodore Van Oosbree

“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, As to be hated needs but to be seen; Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face, we first endure, then pity, then embrace”

--- Alexander Pope

Bob Moffitt


"Yes those crazy old-time doctors, trying to cure a horrible disease by giving patients stuff that was only slightly horrible! What were they thinking?"

Well .. they were probably thinking exactly what the "crazy" doctors of today think .. as they try to prevent "rotovirus" by injecting children with a vaccine they KNOW contains "pig virus".

Not to worry .. THEY claim THEY don't know if "pig viruses" are dangerous for children .. soooooo .. the BENEFITS OF PIG VIRUSES MUST OUTWEIGH THEIR RISKS.


@Neuroskeptic: I assume you're also ready to defend the short-sightedness of medical practitioners for their blatant overuse of antibiotics for 1)harmless, self-limiting bacterial infections and 2) viral infections? In the absense of their lack of creative thinking, we welcome MRSA.

Skeptic with a silent "K"


How's James Randi these days? Did you get to touch his sleeve?

Which would you rather have these days-- mercuric chloride or a Vioxx-Avandia-Trovan cocktail?

Adriana Unethical research is alive and well and performed in the United States or by corporations which exist in the US. What do they call the Trovan trial in Nigeria if not inhumane and unethical even by the CDC's and HHS's depraved standards. And of course the entire current vaccine program is a giant human trial.

I was always struck by the charge that Andrew Wakefield employed spinal tap (when he did not perform them) "unethically" because it was supposedly of no benefit to the children, even though it's the gold standard for determining the existance of mitochondrial disorders. What's so interesting about it is that there was a virtual spree of performing grossly unethical and utterly unbeneficial spinal taps on children and youth in the 1980s and 1990s in order to establish a link between genes (targeting racial minorities and the disabled) and violence. Minority children and the disabled were subjected to radioactive brain scans, lumbar punctures and other painful or dangerous interventions, all to "add to researchers' understanding" only. One group of children, the younger siblings of minority children in juvenile detention, were given 10 times the amount of fenfluramine that would injure an adult-- again to no benefit to these children. David Goldman, Laboratory for Neurogenetics of the former National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) received a $200,000 grant in 1992 to perform spinal taps on "violent offenders", which somehow included autistic children to prove the gene-violence link. A book which outlines some of these trials is "The War Against Children of Color" by Peter Breggin. Another book which provides more detail but which I assume defends this experiment and other racist/discrimanatory human research trials which were part of the Federal Violence Iniative can be found here:


Chalk up another victory for pharma's "bug hunters"! All "for the greater good", I'm sure. Not much in the way of "collateral damage". Informed consent? Why bother? Today, pharma has got "captive" test subjects, liability waivers, advanced market commitments, and a new definition of pandemic. Today, pharma has got the FDA to call homeopathy "bogus", ineffectual, and unsafe at any dose.


I read somewhere, I think in "Cure Unknown," about a woman who tried malaria therapy for Lyme disease. This was within the past 20 years. The Lyme bacteria is a spirochete, just like the syphilis bacteria.


Instead of mercuric chloride, why not administer mercuric fluoride? Twice the bang for the buck: fluorosis and heavy metal poisoning. These are xeniobotics - chemical intoxicants. They are cummulative poisons.


I think medicine has a alot of be embarassed about. Everything they do is harmful from vaccines to chemo. None proven and all dangerous.


Yes those crazy old-time doctors, trying to cure a horrible disease by giving patients stuff that was only slightly horrible! What were they thinking?

Malaria therapy (which did work) sounds bad to us, because we are lucky enough to live in the era of antibiotics. Malaria?! Why not just give them penicillin?

Because there wasn't any.

Faced with a choice between malaria and syphilis I know which one I'd choose.

Adam M

Guatemala and Tuskegee. Sins of commission and sins of omission.

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