Nearly 800 plaintiffs have launched a billion-dollar lawsuit against Johns Hopkins University over its alleged role in the deliberate infection of hundreds of vulnerable Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis and gonorrhoea, during a medical experiment programme in the 1940s and 1950s.
The lawsuit, which also names the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation, alleges that both institutions helped “design, support, encourage and finance” the experiments by employing scientists and physicians involved in the tests, which were designed to ascertain if penicillin could prevent the diseases.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine held “substantial influence” over the commissioning of the research program by dominating panels that approved federal funding for the research, the suit claims.
The lawsuit asserts that a researcher paid by the Rockefeller Foundation was assigned to the experiments, which he travelled to inspect on at least six occasions.
The suit also claims that predecessor companies of the pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb supplied penicillin for use in the experiments, which they knew to be both secretive and non-consensual.
The experiments, which occurred between 1945 and 1956, were kept secret until they were discovered in 2010 by a college professor, Susan Reverby. The programme published no findings and did not inform Guatemalans who were infected of the consequences of their participation, nor did it provide them with follow up medical care or inform them of ways to prevent the infections spreading, the lawsuit states.
Orphans, prisoners and mental health patients were deliberately infected in the experiments.
The plaintiffs case quotes the correspondence from one of the programme’s lead researchers who tells another doctor that if it were discovered by “some goody organization” that the programme was testing people who were mentally ill it would “raise a lot of smoke”. The manager continues: “I see no reason to say where the work was done and the type of volunteer.”
Baltimore-based attorney for the plaintiffs Paul Bekman told the Guardian that of the 774 claimants, about 60 were direct survivors of the programme. Many have died as a result of deliberate infection and others had passed on disease to family members and partners.
“The people who are responsible [for carrying out the research] now are long dead,” said Bekman “But the records are there, and we have detailed documentation that supports the allegations in our complaint.”
Marta Orellana was a nine-year-old orphan when she was included in the experiments. In an interview with the Guardian in 2011 she recalled being forcibly examined by light-complexioned foreigners and a Guatemalan doctor in the orphanage infirmary.
“They never told me what they were doing, never gave me a chance to say no,” Orellana said “I’ve lived almost my whole life without knowing the truth. May God forgive them.”
Included within the legal claim are graphic descriptions of some of the methods used by the researchers to infect their subjects:
During the experiments the following occurred:
- Prostitutes were infected with venereal disease and then provided for sex to subjects for intentional transmission of the disease;
- Subjects were inoculated by injection of syphilis spirochaetes into the spinal fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord, under the skin, and on mucous membranes;
- An emulsion containing syphilis or gonorrhoea was spread under the foreskin of the penis in male subjects;
- The penis of male subjects was scraped and scarified and then coated with the emulsion containing syphilis or gonorrhea;
- A woman from the psychiatric hospital was injected with syphilis, developed skin lesions and wasting, and then had gonorrhoeal pus from a male subject injected into both of her eyes and;
- Children were subjected to blood studies to check for the presence of venereal disease.
The then secretary of state Hillary Clinton apologised for the programme in 2010 after a presidential bioethics commission investigation found the experiments “involved unconscionable basic violations of ethics”.
A federal lawsuit for damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act failed in 2012 after a judge determined the US government cannot be held liable for actions outside the United States. Bekman told the Guardian he believed the new lawsuit stood a greater chance of success as it was lodged in the state court of Maryland and against private entities.
Both Johns Hopkins University and the Rockefeller Foundation have vigorously denied any involvement in the experiments.
A spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins School of Medicine said the institute expressed “profound sympathy” for the victims of the experiments and their families, but added: “Johns Hopkins did not initiate, pay for, direct of conduct the study in Guatemala. No nonprofit university or hospital has ever been held liable for a study conducted by the US government.”
The university stated it would “vigorously defend” the lawsuit.
The Rockefeller Foundation issued a detailed response to the claim online, which it described as seeking to “improperly to assign ‘guilt by association’ in the absence of compensation from the United States federal government”.