The Guatemala STD study and the problematic history of human subject research

My friend and colleague Susan Reverby has been all over the news the past few days  because of her discovery of unethical studies of STD transmission conducted in Guatemala during the 1940s (great interview on PBS News Hour, Susan!).  She found the material on the Guatemala studies while researching her new book on the history of the infamous Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis in the Negro male.  Susan’s work on Tuskegee shows that abuse of vulnerable populations is not limited to Latin America and other areas of the developing world: it was happening within our borders long after the trials of Nazi scientists following the Second World War.

I made a modest contribution to the history of human subjects research in a talk at Wesleyan University this afternoon.  (this is a continuation of my earlier article on using students for medical and behavioral science research).  My talk was part of the launch of the Wesleyan Digital Archive of Psychology.  My talk was called “Coeds as Guinea Pigs,” and discussed the use of diethylstilbestrol (DES) as an emergency contraceptive and the controversy that ensued once it was discovered that this drug caused cancer in the daughters of women who had taken the drug during pregnancy.  Y’all are going to have to read my book for the full story, but briefly, news about the DES research was exposed at the same Congressional hearings that discussed the Tuskegee study, and research on Depo Provera using poor women of color as test subjects.   These hearings and similar exposes led to significant reforms in the treatment of human subjects in the United States.

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