Lessons From the Past and Present
To: Members of the University Community
From: Mark A. Nordenberg
October 11, 2010
Recent weeks have brought news coverage of two deeply troubling events. Though separated by thousands of miles and decades of time, both provide important reminders of the standards, values and human touch that must guide our work and characterize our community.
The more distant set of events was described in a paper written by Professor Susan Reverby of Wellesley College. Her article reports that, from 1946 to 1948, a U.S. Public Health Service team working in Guatemala to develop methods for the prevention of syphilis inoculated hundreds of especially vulnerable human subjects—prisoners, mental patients and prostitutes—with that disease and did so without their consent and through the use of deceptive practices. It appears that these subjects subsequently were treated with penicillin, though it is not clear that all were cured.
The release of this article was accompanied by a statement from the U.S. Departments of State and Health and Human Services, which was issued jointly by Secretaries Clinton and Sebelius. Their statement both condemns and apologizes for the study—which, according to the article, was co-sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service, the National Institutes of Health, the Pan American Health Sanitary Bureau and the Guatemalan government.
“The sexually transmitted disease inoculation study conducted from 1946 to 1948 in Guatemala was clearly unethical. Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health. We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices. The conduct exhibited during the study does not represent the values of the United States, or our commitment to human dignity and great respect for the people of Guatemala.”
The statement further declares, “The study is a sad reminder that adequate human subject safeguards did not exist a half-century ago.” It then goes on to add, “Today, the regulations that govern U.S.-funded human medical research prohibit these kinds of appalling violations.”
A leader of the Guatemalan experiments was Dr. John Cutler, who joined the faculty of our Graduate School of Public Health in 1967, some two decades after the events in question occurred. Dr. Cutler retired from the faculty in 1993 and died in 2003. According to Professor Reverby’s article, an obituary described him as “a much beloved professor.” Perhaps for that reason, a theme she has advanced is that “the scientific enterprise must always be watched over, even when the intentions are good and the ‘best men’ do it.” Certainly, the lessons from this sad chapter in the history of public health underscore the need for a continuing commitment to the highest ethical standards in research at a university like ours—which is a major center for cutting-edge initiatives, with much of its work focused on human subjects.
A deadly combination of vulnerability and reprehensible conduct arose in a far more contemporary setting late last month. As now has been widely reported, an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River after an intimate encounter with another man in his residence hall room was streamed onto the internet. Two of his classmates face criminal charges for invasion of privacy.
Descriptions of the victim and of the deep sense of loss triggered by his death have been heart-wrenching. The New York Times reported that “[t]hose who knew Mr. Clementi…were anguished by the circumstances surrounding his death, describing him as an intensely devoted musician who was sweet and shy.” An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education began:
“It’s hard imagining what must have gone through Tyler Clementi’s mind the night he walked out onto the George Washington Bridge to kill himself. Mr. Clementi…was a shy, bespectacled young man known as a superb violinist. That afternoon, he had seemed calm while rehearsing pieces by Beethoven and Berlioz… .But when he walked out over the Hudson River on September 22, with cars and trucks blaring beside him and the dark water 200 feet below, Mr. Clementi was alone.”
One of our highest student life priorities has been to create a campus environment in which no student needs to feel alone, whatever problems he or she may be facing. Those efforts to build a sense of connection-to-community take many forms, begin during freshman orientation, include the services of our professional counseling staff, and extend to such initiatives as our “Talk to Me” (soon to be re-named “Give Depression a Voice: Talk About It”) campaign. Such efforts may be even more critical in the face of what has been called the “callousness” of the digital age.
In a tragically ironic twist, the death of Mr. Clementi coincided with the launch of Rutgers’ “Project Civility,” an effort to “cultivate small acts of courtesy and compassion” as steps in building “a more charitable campus culture.” Our own “Pitt Promise” is a well established effort to nurture the values critical to sustaining a civil culture here. Those values include mutual respect and civility, self-restraint and concern for others. Among its specific promises are pledges to “embrace the concept of a civil community which abhors violence, theft and the exploitation of others” and to “support a culture of diversity by respecting the rights of those who differ from myself.”
Such values not only are timeless but are central to the type of caring, supportive community that we have worked to build and sustain at Pitt. In different, but highly relevant ways, both sets of recent news reports – those focused on research initiatives in Guatemala more than sixty years ago and those focused on student life at a New Jersey university just a few weeks ago—show what terrible harms can result when such values do not guide our way. Those reports also remind us, then, that we must take care to ensure that such values—based on respect for all human beings—continue to define our work and to characterize human interactions on