Syphilis experiment: Drug firm Bristol-Myers Squibb faces $1billion suit


A US federal judge has ruled pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johns Hopkins University and the Rockefeller Foundation must face a $1 billion lawsuit over their roles in a 1940s medical experiment that saw hundreds of Guatemalans infected with syphilis.

Seven hundred and seventy four Guatemalan victims and relatives in 2015 launched a civil suit over the US-led experiment, which aimed to find out if penicillin could be used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

They claimed the experiment “subjected them or their family members to medical experiments in Guatemala without their knowledge or consent during the 1940s and 1950s.”

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US District Judge Theodore Chuang rejected arguments from the defence that a recent Supreme Court decision protecting foreign companies from US lawsuits over human rights abuses abroad also applied to domestic firms.

The judge said allowing the case to move forward would “promote harmony” by giving the foreign plaintiffs the opportunity to seek justice in US courts.

The unethical experiment was revealed by Doctor Susan Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College in the US.

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She came across the work while researching notes left by John Charles Cutler, a public health services sexual disease specialist who headed up the experiment, following his death in 2003.

Cutler and his fellow researchers enrolled soldiers, mental patients, prostitutes, convicts and others in Guatemala for the study.

Former US president Barack Obama apologised for the experiments in 2010, while his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the experiments as “clearly unethical.”

What is syphilis?

According to, Syphilis is a highly contagious disease spread primarily by sexual activity, including oral and anal sex. Occasionally, the disease can be passed to another person through prolonged kissing or close bodily contact.

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Although this disease is spread from sores, the vast majority of those sores go unrecognised. The infected person is often unaware of the disease and unknowingly passes it on to his or her sexual partner.

Pregnant women with the disease can spread it to their baby. This disease, called congenital syphilis, can cause abnormalities or even death to the child.

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