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American Mengele

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I usually write about New York City and educational issues. As a teacher, a Jew, an American, a historian, and just as a human being, I felt this topic was too important not to comment on.

The name Mengele has become synonymous with war criminal, monster, and medical abuse. Physician and anthropologist Josef Mengele was the German "Angel of Death," a Nazi SS officer who conducted human experiments at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp during World War II. He was interested in studying heredity and his most notorious experiments involved people with physical abnormalities such as dwarfs and identical twins. Among other things he attempted to change eye color by injecting dye into eyes, sterilized women and girls, performed vivisections on pregnant women, and applied electric shock and amputated healthy limbs to test pain tolerance. Most of the victims died, because of either the experiments or later infections. Twins were purposely killed and dissected. According to Children of the Flames by Lucette Lagnado and Shiela Dekel (Penguin, 1992), Mengele experimented on approximately 1,500 sets of twins and only 100 sets survived. After the war he escaped to South America where he continued to practice medicine and eluded capture for thirty-four years until he died in 1979.

If Mengele was a "singleton", the only person of his kind in human history, his story would be horrible enough, but unfortunately this type of horrific medical experiments are not unique to him or to Nazi Germany. In researching the New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance Curriculum Guide and New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008), I came across the story of Dr. J. Marion Sims, a pioneering gynecologist from South Carolina and founder of the Woman's Hospital of the State of New York, who developed a procedure to assist women injured during childbirth by experimenting, without anesthesia, on enslaved African American women (The New York Times, October 28, 2003, "Scholars Argue Over Legacy of Surgeon who was Lionized, Then Vilified"). Between 1845 and 1849, Dr. Sims performed experimental gynecological operations on countless enslaved African women in the American south including over 34 experimental operations on a single woman. Many of these women died from infections. Despite these activities, Sims is honored with a statue on the outside wall of Central Park near 103rd street across 5th Avenue from the Mt. Sinai Medical Center.

I recently learned of another American Mengele who completed his inhuman experiments and went on to an illustrious medical career. In 2010, President Obama apologized to President Alvaro Colom of Guatemala for venereal disease experiments conducted in the 1940s where American medical personnel deliberately infected Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients with syphilis to test penicillin. According to a New York Times article, "the surgeon general, the attorney general, Army and Navy medical officials, the president of the American Medical Association, the president of the National Academy of Sciences and experts from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the Universities of Pennsylvania and Rochester gave advance approval in principle for experiments that deliberately infected people with venereal diseases, though not all those in authority knew exactly whom the researchers would infect."

The first syphilis experiments were conducted at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. The head of the medical team was Dr. John C. Cutler, a former Coast Guard doctor. Later, Cutler helped supervise the infamous Tuskegee, Alabama syphilis study. Poor Black sharecroppers were left untreated for decades to study the progression of the disease. The study involved approximately 400 men infected with syphilis and was conducted without the benefit of patients' informed consent. It was supposed to last for six months but it continued for forty years until it was exposed by the Associated Press in 1972. In a 1974 out-of-court settlement, the U.S. government promised to give lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all living participants.

A Guatemalan doctor who had a fellowship to study with the United States Public Health Service proposed to Cutler doing similar venereal disease research in Guatemala. Cutler approved the plan and signed agreements with Guatemala's public health service, army and prisons. 1,300 Guatemalan sex workers, prisoners, soldiers, and psychiatric patients were intentionally with syphilis and gonorrhea.

Dr. John C. Cutler died in 2003 and his death was reported in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania newspapers were he lived at the time after teaching at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public Health. The obituary praised Cutler for leading "the way in trying to prevent and control sexually transmitted diseases around the world. Dr. Cutler, a former assistant surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service, was part of a group that in 1944 worked out the ways penicillin could be used to treat syphilis." One of his colleagues praised Cutler as "a pioneer who had firsthand experiences of living and working in the Third World."

Unfortunately, this type of medical testing on unwitting human subjects or people who consent under duress has not stopped. Testing of by pharmaceutical companies was exposed in The Constant Gardener, a book by John Le Carré (2001) and movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz (2005). The plot was based on a real life case in Kano, Nigeria.

Currently, the Nigerian government is accusing Pfizer, the world's biggest pharmaceutical company, of using a meningitis epidemic as an excuse to test an unapproved drug on Nigerian children. Eleven children died and others were permanently disabled. Pfizer is an American company with headquarters in New York City. In 2006, GlaxoSmithKline, Wyeth and other drug giants reported that more than half of their trials were conducted overseas in the impoverished countries of Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Russia, India, South Africa.

It is time to stop permitting and even celebrating American Mengele. President Obama's apology to the people of Guatemala is not enough.