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  • Open Access

Ethical Failures and History Lessons: The U.S. Public Health Service Research Studies in Tuskegee and Guatemala

Public Health Reviews201234:13

  • Published:


Bioethics is often thought of as having been “born in scandal and raised in protectionism.” Less often acknowledged is that bioethics has been so nourished by melodramatic frames that the effort to provide a different form of analysis has been problematic. Using examples of the author’s scholarship on the history and coverage of the United States Public Health Service’s untreated syphilis study in Tuskegee (1932–72) and its sexually transmitted diseases inoculation research studies in Guatemala (1946–48), these histories of medical malfeasance, governmental overreach, and the use of racist and imperial power are examined for the limitations of emotional understandings of “bad scientists” and failures to obtain consent. It is argued that these two tragedies, which have provided an explanation for suspicion of medical and public health research, need to be understood in the context of research hubris and institutional power. They remind us of the necessity for protection of human rights against dangerous excesses of zeal in human research, and the need for researchers to imagine themselves in similar situations.

Key Words

  • Bioethics
  • Tuskegee
  • Guatemala
  • United States Public Health Service
  • syphilis
  • sexually transmitted disease
  • media