US researcher John C. Cutler whose horrific experiments in sexually transmitted disease syphilis in Guatemala in 1946-48 became public on Friday had also worked on a related project in India.
Just a year after forced to wind down the Guatemala experiment, Dr Cutler led a WHO programme in Himachal Pradesh, to check the efficacy of newly found wonder drug penicillin in mass treatment of syphilis. He published the findings of the Himachal programme — conducted in Ghund, 45 kilometers from Shimla — in a report in 1951 titled Mass treatment of Syphilis in an Indian province.
But it's a report he never published that has brought him the kind of infamy usually reserved for the ruthless doctors and researchers of Nazi-run concentration camps. Cutler died in February 2003.
Susan M Reverby, a professor of history at Wembley College in the US, discovered the unpublished papers recently setting off events ending with the US apologising to Guatemala on Friday.
President Barack Obama called Guatemala president Alvaro Colom to “express his deep regrets and ... extend apology to all those affected”.
In an experiment funded by US health authorities, Cutler's team infected inmates of a state-run prison and mentally ill patients in Guatemala with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.
“The purpose of the study was to test the effectiveness of penicillin, which was relatively new at the time,” said Francis Collins, director, National Institutes of Health.
Reverby stumbled upon Cutler's Guatemala experiment while writing a book on a project in which African American men suffering from syphilis were monitored by health authorities over 40 years, but never treated. Cutler was involved in this study.
The Himachal project started a year after Guatemala was wound down by Cutler's public health bosses. The Himachal project was tame in comparison. It was based on voluntary participation rustled up through district officials and propaganda work — and there was no use of force or deception at any stage.
Only, the intention was never to cure individuals suffering from syphilis in that area, chosen for the high incidence of the disease there, but to control the illness — “to reduce the reservoir and transmission”.
Every willing Syphilis positive individual was given one shot of moderate dose penicillin — just one, as opposed to one shot every day for a week as was then prescribed in richer countries such as the US. “The dosage used was low,” Cutler admitted in his report, adding, “but it must be remembered that programmes for other countries with particular problems, such as scarcity of penicillin, must be designed to meet the immediate needs.”
The experiment was simply about how best to make do with limited resources: the low dose shot was good enough to cure early stage syphilis, control the reservoir and check the spread.
Cutler concluded his report saying that his team could examine and treat up to 350 people a day.