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Mists of Time: Skeletons in the Closet

It’s October. In northern climes the leaves are beginning to change and, later this month as they begin to fall, there will be a chill in the night air. A fitting time to put to rest forgotten skeletons in the closets. Medicine, like so many other facets of our scientific world, has its own skeletons, dark secrets some would prefer remain locked away. There are many — too many to recount now — but here are a few.

Last year, Susan Reverby, a medical historian at Wellesley College, was examining the archived records of the infamous Tuskegee medical experiments, a government study conducted on African American men in Alabama from 1932 to 1972, when she came across reports of a similar, forgotten study. It was a study some would prefer remain forgotten, a skeleton left in the closet. But skeletons rarely remain hidden for long, and it was time for this skeleton to emerge into the light.

One of the individuals involved in the Tuskegee study was Dr. John Cutler. But this was not Cutler’s only foray into what could be called the black arts of medicine. We find him in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948, conducting similar experiments.

Cutler is not a “mad scientist,” working alone under cover of darkness. He has the permission of the Guatemalan government of the time, the necessary “proper channels.” The permission which he does not have is that of the human subjects on whom he is about to experiment: prisoners, soldiers, and mental patients.

These experiments, like those in Tuskegee, involve the sexually-transmitted diseases syphilis and gonorrhea, and require that the unsuspecting subjects be deliberately infected with the disease. At first, infection is passed the “old fashioned” way, through sexual visits from prostitutes already infected. When that fails to produce the desired infection rate, the men are exposed by having live syphilis bacteria applied to abrasions on their faces, arms, and penises.

So much for the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm.”

These experiments could mean a death sentence for the subjects. Prior to this, STDs were mainly incurable, and claimed millions of lives via a long, disfiguring, wasting death. But these were desperate times calling for desperate measures.

Perhaps. However, the fact that Cutler and his cohorts conducted his American experiments on a marginalized segment of the population, and then went to what was considered a third-world country for further research, belies any claim of ignorance of the moral — not to mention legal — implications involved.

Certainly when the story of these experiments came to public light this past month, there were immediate reactions from both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with sincere apologies offered to the people of Guatemala.

Unfortunately though, these stories are not found only in the early 20th century.

If you have never heard of “MK Ultra,” the code name for CIA mind-control experiments of the 1960s and 1970s, look it up, and hold onto your chair. You’ll be in for an action-packed thrill ride in the Cold War era. Paralleling Dr. Cutler’s work, some of the experiments were performed on U.S. citizens in the United States, and some were not.

Toronto news papers in the late 1980s documented CIA mind control experiments conducted on Canadian citizens in the 1960s in a Montreal psychiatric hospital. Ordinary patients, some who had been committed and some who had simply checked themselves in for treatment for depression, found themselves in an electroshock nightmare from which there was no escape. The purpose of the work: To completely erase their personalities and memories and substitute new ones.

As was raised in Guatemala, the question is what constitutes government permission in a democratic society?

Time heals, and from the mists of time emerge persons and their stories, not nearly so dark as these.

The inspiring story of Doctors Hazen and Brown and their work at the New York State Department of Health, and the discovery of the wonder drug Nystatin, will let you sleep easier … as we explore more stories from the Mists of Time.