A commission set up last year by President Barack Obama has revealed that 83 Guatemalans died in U.S. government research that infected hundreds of prisoners, prostitutes and mental patients with the syphilis bacteria to study the drug penicillin -- a project that the group called "a shameful piece of medical history."
"The report is good and I applaud the Obama administration for giving it some sunshine," said Dr. Howard Markel, a pediatrician and medical historian from the University of Michigan. "Internationally, what we do as a human society is to make sure that these things never happen again."
But medical ethicists say that even if today's research is not as egregious as the Guatemala experiment, American companies are still testing drugs on poor, sometimes unknowing populations in the developing world.
Many, like Markel, note that experimenting with AIDS drugs in Africa and other pharmaceutical trials in Third World countries, "goes on every day."
"It's not good enough, in my opinion, to protect only people who live in the developed world -- but all human beings," he said.
The U.S. Public Health Service and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau worked with several Guatemalan government agencies from 1946 to 1948, exposing about 1,300 people to the sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid.
They infected soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners and mental patients. More than 5,500 people in all were part of the medical experimentation.
And the presidential panel said government scientists knew they were violating ethical rules.
Scientists wanted to see if penicillin, which was a relatively new drug, could prevent infections. The research was paid for with U.S. tax dollars and culled no useful medical information.
This week the Obama commission revealed that only 700 of them received treatment and 83 died by 1953. The commission could not confirm whether the deaths were a direct cause of those infections.
In the 1940s, syphilis was a major health threat, causing blindness, insanity and even death.
Many of the same researchers had carried out studies on prisoners in Terre Haute, Indiana, but unlike the Guatemalan patients, the Americans gave consent.
For years, the experiments were secret, until a medical historian at Wellesley College in Massachusetts found the records among the papers of Dr. John Cutler, who led the experiments. A federal commission to learn more was set up last year.
According to Markel, ethical considerations in science began to emerge after World War II, and further enlightenment followed after the American civil rights movement.
"This was far too common a phenomenon until our recent history -- in the prison population and homes for the mentally retarded," he said. "Part of the reason we did this research is we didn't think of them as humans."
The discovery of the Holocaust and the murder of 6 million people -- Jews, the disabled, homosexuals and gypsies, as well as bad experimentation by Nazi doctors, opened the world's eyes.
The founding of the United Nations and the World Health Organization also brought attention to human rights.
"Each new discovery and advance in social rights, we had to learn the lesson over and over again," he said. "For a long time, blacks were second or third class citizens."