It's been 70 years since U.S. experiments purposely infected hundreds of Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases. It was an attempt to find treatments for U.S. service members at high risk of catching syphilis and gonorrhea. Full Measure correspondent Joce Sterman traveled to Guatemala and found the human test subjects picked to help find a cure, are still searching for one themselves.
US Archive Video: The greatest risk is that of venereal diseases.
In the 1940's the United States military was fighting many enemies.
US Archive video: The probability of acquiring syphilis is one in 10.
Sexually transmitted diseases were a real threat to the armed forces. And the US government went to incredible lengths to combat them.
Susan Reverby: He's inoculating people with not only with syphilis but also gonorrhea and chancroid and other sexually transmitted diseases, I'm standing there like my mouth is dropping.
Susan Reverby is a medical historian from Wellesley College. She found research showing American doctors carried out torturous human experiments on Guatemalans, all in the name of treating common venereal diseases affecting US troops.
Susan Reverby: I'm thinking wow, no one has ever heard of this.
They were given sexually transmitted diseases in a project championed and funded by the US Public Health Service and lead by a physician named Doctor John Cutler.
Joce Sterman: When you start to look at Cutler's papers do you realize right away, this is incredible?
Susan Reverby: A little bit but the other thing is I'm a historian of medicine, so there are a lot of horror stories with the history of medicine.
This horror story made headlines around the world, detailing the more than 1,300 people infected, including orphans, mental patients, prisoners, and soldiers. Many of the victims were deceived about what was happening and then infected in an agonizing fashion.
Benjamin Ramos: Those persons that conducted these experiments didn't have a conscience. In that time there was no respect. In that time there was no human rights yet. The house is 40 years old and it is made of adobe.
Benjamin Ramos is the son of one of the original victims.
Benjamin Ramos: We are 8 living here: 4 children, 3 adults and my father.
His extended family shares the same home and the same curse: a legacy of pain that started nearly 70 years ago when Benjamin's father Federico says he was infected during his time with Guatemalan Air Force.
Federico Ramos: There was a military base with only foreigners. They were administering injections and that's where they injected me.
Benjamin Ramos: He had been in the military one year when these Americans came to Guatemala to conducted these experiments. And they violated these families because it wasn't just him there were many others.
Joce Sterman: At what point did you find out what your dad had and what you have?
Benjamin Ramos: We started discovering that his illness infected the first, second and third generations.
More than half the experiment victims went untreated, passing down the diseases like a tragic inheritance. So far all they've received is an apology, with President Obama making an unprecedented call to Guatemala's president.
This is the National Palace, essentially Guatemala's version of the White House. Back in 2010 President Obama called the president here to apologize for those experiments. The administration called them shocking and tragic. After that, many of the Guatemalans involved in those experiments expected some sort of action, but it didn't happen.
Joce Sterman: Senor Ramos, are you mad?
Benjamin Ramos: Well, sometimes I get angry against those persons but what can we do? The only thing we can do is ask God to forgive them. I try not to be angry because sooner or later things will be solved and we will be able to receive compensation from the United States.
Compensation for these casualties of a medical war that for so long went unrecognized.
Susan Reverby: Scientists often think of themselves as generals in a war on disease. And if you're a general, you get to figure out who dies. You send people into battle and they die for the good of the whatever you think you're fighting for. And that happens in science too. People are sent in essentially as the foot soldiers of science.
Sharyl: Did these experiments result in any advancements?
Joce: Scientifically, no, not then. But now there’s a question of whether bio-specimens collected during so-called research in Guatemala have been used more recently. Medical and legal ethicists from two universities are now calling for a full audit of what’s in the U.S. bio-medical archives because right now no one knows. And this raises a new question, about whether the legacy of unethical science, may still be at work today.