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Facetime: Susan Reverby

Syphilis researcher speaks about her findings at MSU

April 5, 2012
Photo by Stephen Brooks | The State News

Susan Reverby, professor of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley College, was at MSU Thursday to speak about her findings of a U.S. medical study in Guatemala in which men and women were given syphilis without their knowledge during the 1940s.

State News: Could you describe what exactly was going on in Guatemala?

Susan Reverby: The purpose of the study was to see whether or not certain drugs could be used for what’s called prophylaxis. That is a little bit like “Plan B” is now. … (U.S. researchers) went to Guatemala because not only was prostitution legal in Guatemala, but bringing a sex worker into a prison to service the prisoner was also legal. So what happens is the study begins in the national penitentiary in Guatemala City, in which U.S. taxpayer dollars … (paid) prostitutes who have the disease, and later prostitutes who are infected, to go into the prison and to have sex with the prisoners. … The details were pretty horrific, just horrific.

SN: How many total people in Guatemala were affected?

SR: We think there were at least 1,300 people who were infected with the disease, and it could have been multiple times. Guatemalans, (in) their report, think the numbers are larger. … In some ways it doesn’t matter if it was just one person — it was not something that should have been done.

SN: What would you say are the major takeaways, if anything, from (the Guatemala and Tuskegee, Ala.) syphillis experiments?

SR: The major takeaway from both of these studies, … is that good science depends on good morality. … We should make sure that people don’t get so caught up in their passion for their research that they lose sight of the person sitting in front of them and what that means.

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