Legacy of 'reprehensible' medical studies is focus of lecture

Susan Reverby
Susan Reverby

Two U.S.-conducted medical studies on hundreds of people decades ago without their informed consent will be the focus of a 7 p.m. lecture today in the Nebraska Union. The experiments — one infamous and one brought to light last year — sought answers about sexually transmitted diseases, but ultimately raised questions about the biomedical community’s ethical considerations.

Susan Reverby, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley College and a renowned medical historian, will present “The U.S. Syphilis Studies in Tuskegee and Guatemala: How Should We Think About Them Now?" The event is free and open to the public.

Her talk is the Linda and Charles Wilson Humanities in Medicine Lecture for 2011.

Reverby will address her research into the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. From 1932-72, the study examined the effects of untreated syphilis and involved nearly 600 African American men in and around Tuskegee, Ala. Reverby also will discuss a separate study conducted from 1946-48 that tested preventative possibilities and infected hundreds of Guatemalan prisoners, mental hospital patients and soldiers with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. Like Tuskegee, it involved researchers from the U.S. Public Health Service.

John C. Cutler, an American expert in sexually transmitted diseases, led the Guatemalan study and had a significant role in the Tuskegee study. Reverby learned of the Guatemalan study after examining some records Cutler donated to the University of Pittsburgh before his own death in 2003. Her report on those findings prompted U.S. officials last fall to publicly condemn the “reprehensible” research, issue an apology and launch an investigation into what happened.

Reverby also served on a national committee that successfully lobbied President Bill Clinton to publicly apologize in 1997 to survivors of that study and their heirs.

— Jean Ortiz Jones, University Communications