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U.S. Government Study in 1940s Guatemala

Johns Hopkins welcomes bioethical inquiry into the U.S. government's Guatemala study from the 1940s and its legacy. For more than half a century since the time of that study, scholars and ethicists have worked with government officials to establish rigorous ethical standards for human research. On this page, please find:

  • Information about a lawsuit filed in 2015 against Johns Hopkins, the Rockefeller Foundation and Bristol-Myers Squibb Company regarding the Guatemala study from the 1940s.
  • A Johns Hopkins commentary posted in 2012 about the Guatemala study from the 1940s.
  • Additional information and resources on this topic and on today’s guiding principles of institutional review boards for research involving human subjects.
Johns Hopkins Media Statement - April 1, 2015

Johns Hopkins expresses profound sympathy for individuals and families impacted by the deplorable 1940s syphilis study conducted by the U.S. government in Guatemala. This was not a Johns Hopkins study. Johns Hopkins did not initiate, pay for, direct or conduct the study in Guatemala. No nonprofit university or hospital has ever been held liable for a study conducted by the U.S. government. 

It has been well established by a Presidential Commission that this unconscionable research was funded and executed by the United States government. The President, U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services have apologized to the Guatemalan government and to all affected.

The plaintiffs’ essential claim in this case is that prominent Johns Hopkins faculty members’ participation on a government committee that reviewed funding applications was tantamount to conducting the research itself and that therefore Johns Hopkins should be held liable. Neither assertion is true.

A class action lawsuit seeking to hold federal officials responsible for the Guatemala study has been filed and dismissed. U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton dismissed that action in 2012 and stated that the pleas of victims for relief are more appropriately directed to the political branches of the federal government.

For more than half a century since the time of the Guatemala study, scholars, ethicists and clinicians have worked with government officials to establish rigorous ethical standards for human research. Johns Hopkins welcomes bioethical inquiry into the U.S. government's Guatemala study and its legacy. This lawsuit, however, is an attempt by plaintiffs’ counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain. Plaintiffs’ legal claims are not supported by the facts.

We will vigorously defend the lawsuit.

A Letter to the Johns Hopkins Community - April 1, 2015

SUBJECT: Challenges from the past

Dear Member of the Johns Hopkins Community,

More than 60 years ago, the U.S. government conducted an unconscionable and unethical experiment in Guatemala, in which U.S. government researchers deliberately infected vulnerable citizens of Guatemala with syphilis and other infectious diseases. We feel profound sympathy for the individuals and families impacted by this deplorable study.

When the details of this study came to light, a Presidential Commission determined that the Guatemala Study was funded and conducted by the United States government. In 2010, the President of the United States, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Health and Human Services apologized to all affected. In 2012, a federal district court concluded that the pleas of victims for relief are more appropriately directed to the political branches of the federal government.

Today, attorneys representing Guatemalan plaintiffs announced that they are suing The Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Health System, alleging that Johns Hopkins was responsible for the study. The plaintiffs’ essential claim in this case is that prominent Johns Hopkins faculty members’ participation on a government committee that reviewed funding applications was tantamount to conducting the research itself, and therefore that Johns Hopkins should be held liable. 

Neither assertion is true.

This was not a Johns Hopkins study. Johns Hopkins did not initiate, pay for, direct or conduct the study in Guatemala. Participation in the review of government research was then and is today separate from being a Johns Hopkins employee, and no nonprofit university or hospital has ever been held liable for a study conducted by the U.S. government. 

As a leading global research university, Johns Hopkins values rigorous and open scrutiny of history, even when it is complex and uncomfortable.

We know that historians have previously linked prominent Johns Hopkins faculty members in various ways to other unethical government research studies in Tuskegee and Terre Haute. Although separate from the Guatemala lawsuit, these studies were all deplorable and all demand reflection upon the broader legacy of unethical research. It is important to confront and learn from the past.  At the same time, we cannot let unfounded allegations go unchallenged. We will defend the institution vigorously in court against legal responsibility for the government’s Guatemala study.

If you would like more information about the university’s position on the lawsuit, we have released a media statement that you can find here, along with information about the Presidential Commission on the research in Guatemala and its findings.

Sincerely,

Ronald J. Daniels
President, The Johns Hopkins University

Paul B. Rothman, M.D.
Dean of the Medical Faculty
CEO, Johns Hopkins Medicine

Michael J. Klag, M.D., M.P.H.
Dean, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

A Commentary on Reports by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues - June 19, 2012

In 2011, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues released two reports of great importance to the public and to the medical and public health research communities. 

The first report, issued in September 2011 and titled “‘Ethically Impossible’: STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948,” was the result of a comprehensive investigation into studies conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service in Guatemala, in which several groups of people were deliberately exposed to sexually transmitted diseases. The second report, issued in December and titled “Moral Science: Protecting Participants in Human Subjects Research,” surveyed the current laws and standards for human subjects research, and made several recommendations to improve current practices.

The Commission found that the Guatemala studies “involved unconscionable basic violations of ethics” and that “the individuals who approved, conducted, facilitated and funded these experiments are morally culpable to various degrees.”

The studies were approved and conducted by the U.S. government and by individuals acting on behalf of the U.S. government. As reported by the Commission, several individuals in prominent academic positions at American universities served either as expert volunteers or employees of the government on the government-appointed committees that reviewed and recommended approval of and funding for the studies.

> Read the full Commentary. Originally posted June 19, 2012.

 

Additional Information and Resources

  1. Presidential Commission Report - "Ethically Impossible" STD Research in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948
  2. Presidential Commission Report - Moral Science: Protecting Participants in Human Subjects Research
  3. Institutional Review Boards at Johns Hopkins Medicine
  4. The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy Examining Tuskegee (Susan M. Reverby ed., 2009)
  5. Reverby, S. (2015, April 3). Suing for Justice? More on the U.S. STD Studies in Guatemala. Retrieved from http://www.thehastingscenter.org/Bioethicsforum/Post.aspx?id=7365&blogid=140Bioethics

 

Media Contact

Media Relations Phone: 410-955-6681

Media Relations Email: JHMedia@jhmi.edu

After Hours & Holidays: 410-955-6070 (Request a page of the media relations representative on call)

 

Guiding Principles of Institutional Review Boards (IRB)

Johns Hopkins experts discuss the guiding principles of Institutional Review Boards in research involving human subjects:

  • respect for persons
  • risk and benefit analysis
  • justice and fairness