When Wellesley College Professor Susan Riverby was digging through the archives at University of Pittsburgh, she discovered an account of a twisted study that took place in Guatemala. John Cutler, a professor at University of Pittsburgh, conducted the study at age 31, just four years out of medical school. Using taxpayer dollars, he and his team went to Guatemala to inoculate prisoners, sex workers, orphans and mental patients with syphilis and gonorrhea. They picked Guatemala because prostitution was legal there, allowing the disease to propagate throughout communities all around the country. Their given reason was to see if penicillin could act as a prophylaxis against this category of sexually transmitted infections. It did not work. STIs were spreading rapidly throughout the nation and Guatemalans had no access to treatment. As Riverby kept digging, she found that Cutler was given a grant from the head of the Syphilis division at the National Institute of Health to keep this study up and running, in addition to the previously mentioned taxpayer dollars going to sex workers and alcohol meant to encourage  local people to cultivate and spread these diseases. Overall, there were 1,308 people intentionally exposed and over 5,000 diagnosed.

Susan Riverby is an award -winning historian and professor at Wellesley College. She came Brandeis University to give a speech titled “Escaping Melodrama: How to think about the U.S. Public Health Service Studies in Tuskegee and Guatemala” this past Wednesday. In her presentation, she discussion two separate but connected instances in which the U.S. government had doctors inject Black men with syphilis without their knowledge. 

Throughout her Ph.D. work, she extensively studied the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which hundreds of Black men suffered from untreated syphilis and were studied at Tuskegee University. While this was a multidimensional human rights violation, one major failing  was that nearly 15 years into the study, penicillin was discovered as a treatment for syphilis and  the researchers involved decided not to tell their patients this was an option. Instead, they left patients’  bodies to deteriorate due to their disease. Not only did this disease affect the men directly enrolled in the study, but additionally their wives, family members, and children. The study was shut down after forty years of operation (1932-72). Riveryby’s story starts there. Her talk focused mainly on her research of the tragedies that occurred in Guatemala between the years of 1946-48.

When Riverby found these papers, she was shocked. Before spreading the information, she did her due diligence and all of the necessary research before sharing it with the former Center for Disease Control and Prevention director, who was a close friend of hers. As word spread through the government, people got scared and started to cover their tracks. This action only made matters worse and heightened the profile of the issue. In Riverby’s talk, she asked “If a historian finds something in the archives and shouts, will anybody listen?” This culminated into a yes, as this study provoked a public presidential apology from President Barack Obama to Guatemala, one that was long overdue.  

Riverby said that there is a difference between drama and melodrama. Drama, she said,  is because of the people, melodrama is because of the story. This story is classified as a melodrama because of the absolute abhorrent nature of the story, in addition to the cover up. Riverby  said that melodrama “Makes for great horror but a poor basis for which to understand and obtain justice.”  Riverby  sought to empower students, to take action against injustices they discover.