On Wednesday, nearly 800 people filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Johns Hopkins University for its role in a research study that infected more than 1,600 Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases in the 1940s and 1950s. The plaintiffs include family members of individuals who died from complications from diseases they contracted during the study, which sought to study penicillin’s effect on the spread of gonorrhea, chancres and syphilis among sex workers, mental patients, prisoners, and soldiers.
The research, known as the U.S. Public Health Service Sexually Transmitted Disease Inoculation Study of 1946-1948, came to light in 2010, prompting apologies from President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to then-Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom. The next year, a presidential commission on bioethical research called the study a “gross violations of ethics,” and said the experiments constituted “especially egregious moral wrongs because many of the individuals involved held positions of public institutional responsibility.”
Such individuals included the U.S. surgeon general, the U.S. attorney general, Army and Navy medical officials, the presidents of the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences, and experts from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the Universities of Pennsylvania and Rochester, who participated on a government committee that reviewed the research proposal and approved it for funding.
Johns Hopkins spokesperson Kim Hoppe called the lawsuit an “attempt by the plaintiffs’ counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain.” Robert Mathias, the lead counsel for Johns Hopkins, called the lawsuit “baseless,” saying the university “did not initiate, pay for or direct” the study. A Rockefeller spokesperson called the experiments “morally repugnant,” but said the foundation would fight the lawsuit, stating that it had no role in the study’s planning, funding or execution.
The lawsuit, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court, also named the Rockefeller Foundation and pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb as defendants. The victims’ lawyer, Paul Bekman, said the case was about “accountability and responsibility.”
Wednesday’s lawsuit isn’t the first related to the nearly 70-year-old study. Victims and their families filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government in 2012, but the government rejected the suit on the grounds that the U.S. government can’t be sued for damages it caused abroad.