by BAR editor and senior columnist Margaret Kimberley
The Nazi “Doctor of Death,” Joseph Mengele, lived out his last years in hiding and infamy in South America. But the American Dr. Mengele, Dr. John C. Cutler, who infected human beings with syphilis in Alabama and Guatemala, died in the bosom of Yale University, a man of honor and high esteem. Cutler’s diabolical crimes were “normalized and praised” because they were committed against non-white people.
Freedom Rider: Tuskegee, Guatemala…
by BAR editor and senior columnist Margaret Kimberley
“The poorly educated black farmers in Alabama and the prisoners and mental patients in Guatemala had one important thing in common. They were not white.”
The dictates of white supremacy have resulted in numerous examples of murder, torture and endless human rights abuses over the course of centuries. White supremacy is still with us, and so are its many manifestations. We are propagandized, induced to lose intelligence, compassion, and even the instinctive desire for self-preservation whenever white people declare their actions to be right, and the only possible way to understand the world.
Even in the field of medicine, white supremacy turns people who should be healers into tormentors. These tormentors are then able to deny that people of color are in fact people, and these humans become laboratory rats, subjected to disease and pain by people who should be helping them.
In 1972, the world discovered that American physicians had committed a heinous crime over a period of forty years. In Tuskegee, Alabama in 1932, black men were recruited with handbills promising free medical treatment for “bad blood” a term used to describe a variety of conditions. When patients responded to the promise of medical care, money and hot meals, 399 men were found to be infected with syphilis but they were never informed of that fact nor were they given any treatment for this disease. Instead they were studied as they suffered and died, and spread the devastating sexually transmitted disease to their partners, spouses and children.
“White supremacy turns people who should be healers into tormentors.”
The United States Public Health Service not only operated the study, but went to great lengths to prevent the subjects from being aware of their condition or from seeking treatment. The PHS alerted health departments in northern cities not to treat anyone from Tuskegee who presented with syphilis. The victims of the Tuskegee study were also exempted from joining the armed services, where their condition would have been discovered in medical examinations. Even after penicillin became the accepted treatment for syphilis beginning in the late 1940s the men in the Tuskegee study continued to be kept in a state of ignorance about their condition and were never offered what had become a standard treatment.
The Tuskegee syphilis experiment was a secret only to the American public, it was quite well known in the medical community. Officially known as “The Effects of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” the Tuskegee study became the longest observational study conducted in medical history. It was the subject of thirteen scientific studies over the years but was not widely exposed until whistle blower Peter Buxtun told his story to the media in 1972. He turned to the press after trying to work within the system for six years in an effort to stop the project.
Nearly forty years after the Tuskegee horror was made widely known, on October 1, 2010 the Obama administration acknowledged that from 1946 to 1948, United States government scientists infected prisoners and mental patients with syphilis in the central American nation of Guatemala. The project was administered by the Public Health Service, the National Institutes of Health and the Pan American Health Organization and operated with the knowledge of the Guatemalan government. Prostitutes with syphilis were allowed to have sex with prison inmates, and mental patients were directly injected with syphilis or had the bacteria literally poured into their wounds.
“The Tuskegee study became the longest observational study conducted in medical history.”
The story of the Guatemala syphilis experiment immediately brought to mind obvious comparisons with the well known Tuskegee study, but there was also a very direct connection between the two. The Guatemala study was discovered by Wellesley college professor Dr. Susan Reverby in the course of her research on the Tuskegee experiments. Her research on Dr. John C. Cutler who worked on the Tuskegee program in the 1960s, revealed that he operated the Guatemala infection program as well.
Neither Cutler nor any of his colleagues were charged with crimes for their work at Tuskegee, nor did they suffer professionally. Cutler went on to have an illustrious career, ending with a professorship at the University of Pittsburgh, and when he died in 2003, his obituary omitted his well known involvement at Tuskegee. Until the day the White House acknowledged the Guatemala experiments, Cutler’s name was still being used by the University of Pittsburgh to attract major donors without any reference being made to his connection with the Tuskegee horror.
There is a more than coincidental link of the same doctor being involved in the Tuskegee, Alabama and Guatemala experiments on human beings. The poorly educated black farmers in Alabama and the prisoners and mental patients in Guatemala had one important thing in common. They were not white. They also lived under the rules of American segregation and American imperialism. Both systems allowed diabolical behavior to be normalized and praised as long as it was committed by white people.
“Prostitutes with syphilis were allowed to have sex with prison inmates, and mental patients were directly injected with syphilis or had the bacteria literally poured into their wounds.”
The Tuskegee experiment resulted in laws mandating informed consent in medical experiments, but those rules did not change the propensity to silently take orders, or to accept white skin privilege as being good and beneficial to the people of the world. Crimes against humanity take place on a daily basis when decisions are made to create a for profit prison system filled with black people or to send troops to invade and occupy foreign nations. We live in a system that legitimizes the Cutlers and their ilk, whose advanced education is used to not to advance the needs of humanity, but to undermine it.
President Obama personally apologized to Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom about the 1940s experiments, but presidents and cabinet secretaries are in place precisely because they are willing to act inhumanely if the right interests are served. There will always be a Tuskegee, or a Guatemala in a world where racism and hegemonic power are still the rule.
Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgandaReport.com.