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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.

In 2012, a class action lawsuit was brought by victims of the experiments and their families and filed against the United States and others. 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.

The lawsuit recently filed in Baltimore against The Rockefeller Foundation seeks improperly to assign “guilt by association” in the absence of compensation from the United States federal government. 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. In the absence of a connection to The Rockefeller Foundation, the lawsuit attempts to connect the Foundation to the experiments through misleading characterizations of relationships between the Foundation and individuals who were in some way associated with the experiments.

The complaint alleges that Dr. Thomas Parran approved the experiments as Surgeon General of the United States, 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 class action accusing the Surgeon General of responsibility for the experiments was dismissed in 2012.

The complaint also alleges that Dr. Fred Soper, who was on paid leave from The Rockefeller Foundation, served as director of the Pan American Sanitary Bureau (PASB), with responsibility for all of Central and South America. The PASB was used by the USPHS as a pass-through entity for the funding of the Guatemala experiments. But the 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. The class action accusing the Director of the PASB of responsibility for the experiments was dismissed in 2012.

The lawsuit also accuses Dr. Thomas Turner, then a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore and prominent syphilis researcher in the mid-twentieth century, of involvement in the experiments. Dr. Turner’s only connection to The Rockefeller Foundation was as a recipient of a wholly unrelated research grant, which was limited to supporting non-human laboratory experiments and epidemiological studies in the State of Maryland.

The Johns Hopkins University and affiliates are also named in the lawsuit.

Media Contact: Neill Coleman, 212-852-8340, ncoleman@rockfound.org