The Facts on the Unethical Medical Testing Performed in Guatemala in the 1940’s

In 2010, the United States government formally apologized to the people of Guatemala for conducting morally objectionable and highly unethical medical experiments on Guatemalan citizens in 1947-48. The experiments involved exposing the subjects to syphilis and other sexually-transmitted diseases in order to test the efficacy of treatments, without obtaining informed consent of the subjects. A 205-page Report of the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues issued in September 2011 detailed how the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) designed, funded, and carried out the experiments in conjunction with Guatemalan health authorities, laying complete responsibility at the hands of the United States government. The Report does not suggest The Rockefeller Foundation had anything to do with the experiments. In fact, The Rockefeller Foundation is not mentioned anywhere in the exhaustive report.

The victims of the experiments and their families brought a class action lawsuit in 2012 against the United States and others (the “Class Action”). The lawsuit was dismissed on grounds of governmental immunity. The Rockefeller Foundation was never named in that suit, nor did the Foundation’s name ever appear in any of the filings.

In the absence of compensation from the United States federal government, in 2015, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland against The Rockefeller Foundation improperly seeking to assign “guilt by association”. The persons who actually designed and conducted the experiments, and whose activities are discussed at length in the Presidential Commission Report, were led by Dr. John Cutler of the USPHS and had absolutely no relation whatsoever with The Rockefeller Foundation. This lawsuit sought to connect the Foundation to the experiments through misleading characterizations of relationships between the Foundation and individuals who had significant governmental roles in entities associated with the experiments.

In particular, the lawsuit claimed that:

  • The Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Thomas Parran, approved the experiments at a time when he also sat on the Board of Trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation. There is absolutely no evidence that the Foundation or its Board, or Dr. Parran in his capacity as a member of the Board, had any connection whatsoever with the experiments.
  • The Director of the Pan American Sanitary Bureau (PASB) with responsibility for all of Central and South America during the time of the experiments, Dr. Fred Soper, was on paid leave from The Rockefeller Foundation. The PASB was used by the USPHS as a pass-through entity for the funding of the Guatemala experiments. However, The Rockefeller Foundation had no knowledge of the experiments in Guatemala, nor did it control or have responsibility for Dr. Soper’s personal and professional actions in his capacity as Director of the PASB.

In fact, the Class Action dismissed in 2012 had accused the Surgeon General and Director of the PASB of responsibility for the experiments.

On April 18, 2022, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granted summary judgment that rejected the claims that The Rockefeller Foundation and other defendants aided and abetted non-consensual human experimentation in Guatemala in the 1940s. In a thorough 77-page opinion, the federal district court rejected the claims against The Foundation and held that there was a “lack of sufficient evidence that Rockefeller was responsible” for the experiments.

“The Rockefeller Foundation won its motion for summary judgment because the Court undertook a painstakingly detailed analysis of the evidence. The documentation, provided in no small part by our incredible colleagues at The Rockefeller Archives Center, was instrumental in successfully demonstrating that The Rockefeller Foundation was not aware of the activities in question, and it reinforces the importance of our record-keeping policies,” remarked María Santos Valentin, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at The Rockefeller Foundation, about the ruling.

Media Contact: Ashley Chang, (212) 852-0000, achang@rockfound.org

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