Brief History: Secret Medical Testing

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The Tuskegee study in the 1930's halted care for black men with syphilis so doctors could study the disease.

Recent revelations from the University of Pittsburgh's archives show that U.S. doctors infected 700 Guatemalans with syphilis from 1946 to 1948 to test penicillin. The report brought to mind the horrific, decades-long Tuskegee study in which doctors denied treatment for black men with syphilis to study its effects. The episodes point to a murky world of covert American medical testing.

State-sponsored medical experiments did not begin until the 20th century. In 1900, Army scientist Walter Reed gathered volunteers in Cuba willing to be bitten by mosquitoes to see whether the insects carried yellow fever. In the 1940s, scientists tested mustard gas by compelling U.S. Navy men to enter gas chambers. One went temporarily blind. When nitrogen mustard was discovered, doctors injected it into a patient dying of lymphosarcoma and noticed a surprising result: his tumors receded, sparking the beginning of chemotherapy.

While the U.S. prosecuted Nazi war criminals after World War II for performing grisly human experiments, the country was entering its own dark age of testing: hospitalized patients were unwittingly injected with plutonium. "Atomic soldiers" exposed themselves to the radiation of nuclear explosions. Quaker Oats allowed curious researchers to put trace amounts of radiation in the cereal of mentally handicapped children.

The 1950s saw a controversial CIA program that gave the new drug LSD to unsuspecting American citizens. In the 1960s, experimentation in prisons became widespread, making the U.S. the only Western country that ran tests on inmates after World War II. By the 1970s, the truth about many of these programs began pouring out, prompting new rules against human testing. But with the latest discovery, the next reports of dark practices may be soon to follow.