A presidential ethics panel today excoriated the late Dr. John Cutler, an acting dean at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1960s, and his colleagues at the U.S. Public Health Service for deliberately infecting hundreds of Guatemalan prisoners, mental patients, soldiers and prostitutes with syphilis from 1946 to 1948, including 83 who died.
The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues concluded that Dr. Cutler's experiments were morally indefensible, even for the standards of the time, and that he and his fellow doctors tried to keep secret what they were doing because they knew it was wrong.
Commission Chair Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, said the doctors had a duty to "first do no harm" and to protect vulnerable populations.
"Clearly in this history we failed to keep that covenant," she said.
The commission spent the last nine months preparing a historical report on Dr. Cutler's research, which will be presented to President Obama in the next two weeks. [See the June 12 PG article "Before Tuskegee, the Guatemala Experiment."]
The panel provided an overview today at a meeting in Washington, D.C., detailing what its members described as "basic violations of ethics" revealed in a review of some 125,000 pages of documents, including 12,000 pages of Dr. Cutler's own papers that he donated to Pitt in 1990.
The panelists said Dr. Cutler, whose boss at the time was Surgeon General Thomas Parran, for whom Parran Hall on the Pitt campus is named, knew from earlier research that he was violating the rights of his subjects. Just a year before, he had conducted venereal disease experiments on federal prisoners in Indiana in which inmates were informed of the nature of the research.
Dr. Gutmann and others said he afforded his Guatemalan subjects no such protections and did so because he felt the ends justified the means in the battle against sexually transmitted diseases. Dr. Gutmann said her conclusion after reviewing the historical record is that Dr. Cutler regarded the Guatemalans not as human beings but as "material" in studying syphilis.
The panel also lambasted him for not adhering to scientific standards in his experiments, describing his record-keeping as sloppy and his methodology as haphazard. In short, the panelists said, it was "bad science."
In addition, the commission said Dr. Cutler should not be judged alone - many others at PHS knew what was happening and gave their consent.
Dr. Cutler left the PHS for Pitt in 1967 and later became acting dean of the Graduate School of Public Health in 1968 and 1969. The university started a lecture series in his name after he died in 2003, but discontinued it in 2008 after a new dean learned of his role in the infamous experiments at Tuskegee, Ala., in which the PHS withheld treatment for black sharecroppers infected with syphilis to track the disease.
President Clinton apologized for that experiment. Last year, President Obama apologized for the Guatemalan research.