Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Rockefeller Institute are currently facing a lawsuit from over 770 plaintiffs for $1 billion for their alleged role in a series of experiments performed on Guatemalans without their consent 50 years ago. While the role of Johns Hopkins and the Rockefeller Institute is not yet confirmed, many other disturbing details have been.
Seven hundred seventy-four plaintiffs, 60 of whom are original victims of the study, brought forward the current lawsuit. They claim that the Rockefeller Foundation and Johns Hopkins both had roles in planning and financing the experiments, which were designed to test whether penicillin could be used as a cure for STDs. Bristol-Myers Squibb, a large pharmaceutical corporation, has also been implicated in the lawsuit for providing the penicillin.
The plaintiffs are currently seeking $75,000 apiece in actual damages, including the deaths of 124 of the plaintiffs, as well as $1 billion in exemplary damages.
“The research conducted in Guatemala was morally repugnant, and the Rockefeller Foundation wholeheartedly agrees with U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton that the United States government owes reparations to the victims and their families for the damage it caused,” said a Rockefeller spokesperson in an official media statement. “The Rockefeller Foundation did not design, fund or manage any of these experiments and had absolutely no knowledge of them… This lawsuit against the Rockefeller Foundation is without merit and we will oppose it vigorously in court.”
Johns Hopkins’ involvement allegedly included holding major influence over the experiment program. However, Johns Hopkins denies any connection as well.
“Johns Hopkins did not initiate, pay for, direct or conduct the study in Guatemala,” said the school in response to the lawsuit. “No nonprofit university or hospital has ever been held liable for a study conducted by the U.S. government.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, the U.S. performed a series of experiments on Guatemalan citizens, deliberately infecting them with various sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis and gonorrhea, without the subjects’ consent. The US government selected orphans, prisoners, prostitutes and mental health patients for the process.
The incident was brought to light in 2010 after Susan Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College, uncovered evidence of the experiments during her own research.
Following the outrage in response, President Obama and then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton officially apologized and authorized an exhaustive report on the Guatemalan study. In 2011, the report revealed that the entire experiment was commissioned, planned and carried out by the U.S. Public Health Service.
In 2012, another lawsuit over the experiments filed against the United States government was dismissed, although it was suggested that the plaintiffs seek monetary compensation for the research.
Some tried to make sense of the actions of the U.S. in Guatemala.
“We have a national interest, but we also have a human rights issue. We talk about the will of the people and the democracy (in the U.S.), but all those become secondary when we consider the national interest,” said professor of political science George Guo. “If we engage in any kind of initiative — war, labor and lab exercise — we cannot constrain to any moral standard … because other countries do not share the same standards.”
“For more than half a century since the time of the Guatemala study, scholars, ethicists and clinicians have worked with government officials to establish rigorous ethical standards for human research. Johns Hopkins welcomes bioethical inquiry into the U.S. Government’s Guatemala study and its legacy,” said Johns Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe in an email to the Baltimore Sun. “This lawsuit, however, is an attempt by plaintiffs’ counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain.”
Whether the institutions of Johns Hopkins Medical and Rockefeller Foundation were directly involved, or only associated by the participation of faculty is yet to be proven.