(CNN) — The Tuskegee syphilis experiment of the 20th century is often cited as the most famous example of unethical medical research. Now, evidence has emerged that it overlapped with a shorter study, also sponsored by U.S. government health agencies, in which human subjects were unknowingly being harmed by participating in an experiment.
Research from Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby has uncovered evidence of an experiment in Guatemala that infected people with sexually transmitted diseases in an effort to explore treatments.
The U.S. government apologized for the research project on Friday, more than 60 years after the experiments ended. Officials said an investigation will be launched into the matter.
The Tuskegee and the Guatemala studies show what National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins called a “a dark chapter in the history of medicine.”
As unethical as the methods were, the basic research questions behind both studies were highly relevant at the time, said Peter Brown, medical anthropologist at Emory University. Research in Guatemala focused on the powers of penicillin; in Tuskegee, researchers wanted to know the natural history of syphilis.
“In a racist context, they thought [syphilis] might be different in African-Americans; the real unethical part in my mind had to do with denial of treatment and, most importantly, the denial of information about the study to the men involved,” he said.
In 1926, syphilis was seen as a major health problem, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; in 1928, about 25 percent of black employees at the Delta Pine and Land Company of Mississippi had tested positive for syphilis, according to Tuskegee University. A charity called the Julius Rosenwald Fund came to the U.S. Public Health Service to start a project to improve the health of African-Americans in the South.
But in 1929, the Great Depression began, and the Rosenwald Fund had to cut its funds for the treatment program.
The director of the U.S. Public Health Service, Dr. Taliaferro Clark, proposed salvaging the project by investigating the course of untreated syphilis.
Getting African-Americans to participate was not a challenge; most African-Americans did not have access to medical care at that time and the study provided free health exams, food and transportation, according to Tuskegee University.
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