Escaping Melodramas: Retelling the histories of the U.S. Public Health Service STD Research Studies in Tuskegee and Guatemala

Professor Susan Reverby

(Wellesley College, USA)

20th March 2013

Bioethics is often thought of as having been “born in scandal and raised in protectionism.” Less often acknowledged is that bioethics has been so nourished by melodramatic historical frames and paradigmatic stories that the effort to provide a different form of analysis has been problematic. Using examples of the author’s scholarship on the history and coverage of the United States Public Health Service’s untreated syphilis study in Tuskegee (1932-72) and its sexually transmitted diseases inoculation research studies in Guatemala (1946-48), these histories of medical malfeasance, governmental over-reach, and the use of racist and imperial power are examined for the limitations of emotional understandings of “bad scientists” and failures to obtain consent. It is argued that these two tragedies, which have provided an explanation for suspicion of medical and public health research, need to be understood in the context of research hubris and institutional power, not merely as melodramatic tales from the “bad old days.”