Marta Orellana said she was playing with friends at the orphanage when the summons sounded: “Orellana to the infirmary. Orellana to the infirmary.”
Waiting for her were several doctors she had never seen before. Tall men with fair complexions who spoke what she guessed was English, plus a Guatemalan doctor. They had syringes.
They ordered her to lie down and open her legs. Embarrassed, she locked her knees together and shook her head. The Guatemalan medic slapped her cheek and she began to cry.
“I did what I was told,” she recalled.
Today, the nine-year-old girl is a rheumy-eyed 74-year-old great-grandmother, but the anguish of that moment endures. It was how it all began — the pain, the humiliation, the mystery.
It was 1946 and orphans in Guatemala City, along with prisoners, military conscripts and prostitutes, had been selected for a medical experiment which would torment many and remain secret for more than six decades.
The US, worried about GIs returning home with sexual diseases, infected an estimated 1,500 Guatemalans with syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid to test an early antibiotic, penicillin.
“They never told me what they were doing, never gave me a chance to say no,” Orellana said this week, seated in her Guatemala City home. “I’ve lived almost my whole life without knowing the truth. May God forgive them.”
The US government admitted to the experiment in October when US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the US Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius issued a joint statement apologizing for “such reprehensible research.” US President Barack Obama telephoned Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom to say sorry too.
Susan Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College in the US, uncovered the experiment while researching the Tuskegee syphilis study in which hundreds of African American men were left untreated for 40 years from the 1930s.
The Guatemalan study went further by deliberately infecting its subjects. Not only did it violate the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, but it echoed Nazi crimes exposed at the Nuremberg trials.
Guatemala’s official inquiry is scheduled to publish its report this month.
“What impacted me the most was how little value was given to these human lives. They were seen as things to be experimented on,” said Carlos Mejia, a member of the inquiry and head of the Guatemalan College of Physicians.
The US scientists treated 87 percent of those infected with syphilis and lost track of the other 13 percent. Of those treated, about a 10th suffered recurrences.
The US medical establishment, including the surgeon-general, keenly followed the study, even though John Cutler, who led the Guatemala team, acknowledged ethical violations in a 1947 letter, saying: “Unless the law winks occasionally, you have no progress in medicine.”
His supervisor, R.C. Arnold, urged discretion.
“If some goody organization got wind of the work there would be a lot of smoke,” he wrote.
In the end, the study yielded no useful information and was buried.
“They didn’t tell me why they singled me out,” said Orellana, who was four when sent to the institution after her parents died.
After the gynecological probing, when she assumes she was infected, she was given penicillin weekly.
“My body hurt and I was sleepy, I didn’t want to play,” she said.