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Narrative and Public Memory: Three Ways of Looking at a Syphilis Experiment

October 21, 2010

Last week, historian Susan Reverby uncovered a nauseating series of experiments from the 1940s. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) oversaw experiments in which Guatemalans were purposely infected with gonorrhea and syphilis. At least one of the doctors who worked on these experiments also worked on the Tuskegee syphilis experiments in Alabama.

Let me put this into perspective. These experiments occurred over sixty years ago. Fewer than ten thousand people were directly affected. No one would have been surprised if this event had dropped off the radar at once—including Reverby herself.

But coverage of these experiments didn’t stop. Instead, different groups vied for this event, trying to make it emblematic of their own version of the culture’s memory. These groups tried to recruit this episode into their own version of history, and each of these histories gives a different view of the medical establishment and our relationship to it.

1) The Experiments as historical aberration
The US Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for public health, and includes the FDA, the CDC–and the NIH. The HHS described this episode as an “historical research aberration,” one which “could not happen today” because of “a series of safeguards established over the last 40 years.”

Glad that’s cleared up!

2) Same old same old
NaturalNews.com is a website for people who prefer dietary supplements and alternative medicine to surgery and doctor visits. Mike Adams, an editor for the site, doesn’t see the Guatemala episode as “a historical research aberration” at all:

the reality is that Big Pharma and the U.S. government use innocent people in medical experiments every single day. This wasn’t some bizarre, rare event. It was a reflection of the way the U.S. government has consistently conspired with the medical industry to test drugs on innocent victims and find out what happens.

While the HHS portrays government and the medical establishment working together to establish “a series of safeguards” which make unethical experiments impossible; NaturalNews.com argues that the two have “consistently conspired” to produce unethical experiments right up to the present day.

3) A reminder of what could still happen
Bioethicist Arthur Caplan for MSNBC.com.  Caplan makes much of the Guatemala-Tuskegee link. He also describes why we should care about this 60-year-old episode:

There are two reasons. [1] The impact of the Tuskegee experiment has had a lasting effect on the lack of trust and [the] suspicion minorities have about medical research. [2] And it renews ongoing ethical uncertainty about conducting studies in poor nations.

With regard to “minorities,” Caplan notes that African American trust in medical research “remains tenuous because of what was done to great-grandparents and friends. . . . the revelation of the Guatemalan research is a stark reminder that racism and indifference to the weak and the vulnerable did permit incredible abuses.”

With regard to reason two, Caplan notes that “there is a very real moral worry that we are still exploiting the poor to serve as guinea pigs so we can improve our medical care.” Minorities, the poor, the weak—Caplan seems to see victims of past medical horror almost paternalistically, as people whom the medical establishment should have been protecting: “We want to believe that doctors are treating the poor, vulnerable, and those outside the U.S. with more care and respect. But are they?”

The same episode is thus recruited to serve three radically different narratives: one in which we have triumphed over past medical abuses, one in which these medical abuses are everyday occurrences today, and one in which we are still battling to make sure that these abuses do not happen again—as they very well might.

It would be tempting to say that one of these narratives is “right,” or that all of them are “wrong,” but this would be to mistake a cultural memory for a historical treatise. Historical facts do not, by themselves, give us what we need to make present out of past, or future out of present. We also need to know how to how to assign meaning to events, and how to connect events to cultural values. History cannot exist without dramatic narrative, and narratives are not made of data. They need good guys, bad guys, suspense, and resolution. How these roles get divided up depends on who is putting on the play–that is, who is putting on the public memory.

Daniel Dickson-LaPrade is a PhD student in Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University.


If you want to know more:

  • For “public memory” and related concepts, well-regarded sources include John Bodnar’s “Remaking America” and Marita Sturken’s “Tangled Memories.”
  • Argumentative uses of narrative are frequently discussed in rhetorical theory.  A common starting place is Walter Fisher’s “narrative paradigm” concept as introduced in “Human Communication as Narration.”
  • The official White House press statement regarding Pres. Obama’s apology can be found here.
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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara Johnstone permalink
    October 22, 2010 9:21 am

    I completely see your point, but I wonder — is history really as relative as this? Assuming we could agree on a way to decide what is a fact (a big assumption, but people do it all the time), wouldn’t there be fewer facts that could be adduced to support the first two narratives than the third one?

    • Daniel Dickson-LaPrade permalink
      October 22, 2010 11:14 am

      History, the scholarly discipline, is not so relative, insofar as there are institutionalized ways of connecting knowledge claims to their data, as well as canonical approaches to resolving disagreements among historians. Public/collective memory narratives, however, are a horse of another color–or at least, that is what I would argue, along with Walter Fisher and others.

      Any narrative connecting a past event to a current situation must necessarily be extremely selective in what facts it includes. Thus, even if every so-called fact making up a narrative really IS a fact, there is still the question of facts which have been excluded, worded in peculiar ways, and so on.

      Furthermore, insofar as the “consumers” of a collective-memory-in-the-making must work from ideological biases, incomplete knowledge, etc., there will be disagreements in the evaluation of such narratives–and even in what counts as a good criterion for such evaluation. Finally, aside from questions of fact, there are also extrinsic connections with already-believed narratives that have “made it” as part of a given community’s public memory.

      Caplan’s narrative seems most fact-based to me, too. But how much of this is a tendency on my part to trust (medical) authority? How much is due to my placement of his narrative “between” two other narratives, thus making it seem even-handed and moderate? How much is due to my sense that Caplan is a decent sort of fellow? In short, though we can sanely speak of facts and how well a given narrative takes account of them, I would argue that facts are just the tip of the narrative iceberg.

  2. Emily Plec permalink
    October 29, 2010 2:59 pm

    I think Martha Solomon’s brilliant Pentadic analysis of the Tuskegee Syphilis studies (WJC 1985) says it all!

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