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Penicillin study in 1940s deemed 'unethical historical injustice'

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By Rachel Weaver
Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011

A presidential commission found a 1940s U.S. Public Health Service study led by a future University of Pittsburgh researcher to be "an unethical historical injustice."

"It is important that we accurately document this clearly. We do this to honor the victims," said commission chairwoman Amy Gutmann of the late Dr. John C. Cutler's research that involved intentionally infecting 700 Guatemalan prisoners, prostitutes and mental patients with gonorrhea and syphilis.

The commission discussed several of its findings at its public quarterly meeting on Monday in Washington. It expects to provide a report to President Obama next month.

Cutler was not employed at Pitt at the time of the research, which treated patients with penicillin to determine whether it would prevent the diseases in addition to treating them.

Commission staff reviewed more than 125,000 original documents collected from public and private archives around the country, and traveled to Guatemala.

Susan Reverby of Cambridge, Mass., a professor at Wellesley College and historian of American medicine, found documents related to Cutler's research in Pitt's archives.

Her research into the infamous 1932-72 Tuskegee syphilis study, which left black men with the disease untreated so doctors could observe its effects, led her to the archives in the mid-2000s.

Records indicate Cutler was part of the Tuskegee study in addition to his work in Guatemala. The renowned researcher joined the Pitt faculty in 1967 and donated his papers to Pitt in 1990. He was acting dean of the Graduate School of Public Health in 1968.

Cutler died in 2003 at age 87. Pitt officials turned the records over to the Centers for Disease Control after Reverby presented her findings.

"We've cooperated with everything asked of us," said Allison Schlesinger, spokeswoman for the School of Public Health.

Reverby said she was pleased the commission pursued an investigation.

"This could have come out and been in some obscure history journal. It's a really good sign the government is willing to say that when they find out about things like this, they cannot pretend it didn't happen," she said.

She maintains her position, however, that Cutler likely saw his research as "a risk worth taking for the good of science."

"He saw syphilis as an enemy upon which he was fighting a war," she said. "He saw people as soldiers in that war."

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