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Every few years another medical research story breaks in the media with all the schadenfreude of a bad Grade B movie. These melodramas are full of arrogant, imperial and/or racist doctors with science gleaming in their eyes, helpless uniformed subjects usually of colour purportedly grateful for the attention, and an under-resourced area of the USA or another country in the starring roles. The latest big report came in 20101 when news of the 1940s sexually transmitted infection's study in Guatemala appeared with all its grisly details and photographic evidence.2 When knowledge of the unpublished and never cited study became known, the federal government at the highest levels apologised to Guatemala, the presidential bioethics commission wrote and publicised a damning report, the Guatemalan government condemned the study in their own report, and the heads of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) quickly assured everyone that this kind of immoral research was part of the past.3
As the historian who initially found the unpublished reports on the studies in Guatemala that led to the government's apology and investigation, I now wonder what the consequences will be of all the brouhaha. Despite the fact that the details are awful and salacious, and the …
Competing interests None.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.