Thesis Title

Venereal Disease v. Morality: U.S.- Sanctioned STI Trials in Guatemala, 1946-48

Graduation Year


Document Type

Senior Thesis


Bachelor of Arts

Primary Major


Thesis Advisor

Jordan Lieser, PhD


Historians have not shied away from venereal disease as a subject; however, the history of the corresponding treatments, medical experimentation and rationale are incomplete. This research project primarily uses Dr. John Cutler’s journals and medical research to examine this subject through the lens of the intentional exposure trials in Guatemala, where different groups of people were exposed to various STIs in an effort to find a cure or prophylaxis. Across the early-to-mid 20th century, sexually transmitted infections were pervasive; U.S. military records provide some clue at the scale of the epidemic: 10% of the men enlisting in the army during WWI were infected and by the end of WWII, 19% of soldiers carried a venereal disease. During World War II, interest in a solution for syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid was high. After a failed attempt at a trial in Terre Haute (1943-1944), doctors from the Venereal Disease Research Laboratory (VDRL), with the approval of then Surgeon General Thomas Parran, relocated the medical trials to Guatemala in 1946. While there, Dr. Cutler, the principal investigator, completed these experiments in the hope of finding a cure or prophylaxis. These trials were often brutal and completed without the consent of the patient. During the trials, Dr. Cutler also did serology testing on biospecimens. Many of the people responsible for approving the human trials in Guatemala also worked in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments. These people directly benefited from the Guatemalan Trials, as they were the same ones trying to obtain the biospecimens. This research studies the Guatemalan trials and their connections; not only piecing together the history itself, but also attempting to understand and contextualize the justifications for these actions

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