Historians as Detectives: US Infected Guatemalan Prisoners

Dr. Susan Reverby, whose research uncovered the record of the experiments

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Tuskegee Experiments—a shameful chapter in US history in which doctors funded by the U.S. Public Health Service recruited a group of African-American sharecroppers who had syphilis, then watched as their disease progressed, withholding treatment and lying to them about the source of their sickness, all in order to see how the disease worked. In 2011, a professor of history and women’s studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Susan Reverby, was all over the news for having discovered documents that proved that similar studies had been carried out in Guatemala in the 1940s. A doctor who had been part of the Tuskegee experiments, John Cutler, used National Institutes of Health money (that’s taxpayer funding, as the New York Times pointed out) to infect Guatemalan prisoners with venereal diseases in order to test the efficacy of penicillin. Sometimes Cutler even hired prostitutes (which were apparently allowed in Guatemalan jails) to carry out the transmission of disease; sometimes the method was to scrape part of the prisoner’s body and infect that way. The Times quotes a medical ethicist from the University of Chicago, Mark Siegler, who gives some historical perspective: “It’s ironic — no, it’s worse than that, it’s appalling — that, at the same time as the United States was prosecuting Nazi doctors for crimes against humanity, the U.S. government was supporting research that placed human subjects at enormous risk.”

UPDATE: Here’s an interview with Dr. Reverby about her research methods and the initial reception of her work.

Wired for War

In the 1870s, Joseph Glidden and Jacob Haish created one of the deadliest weapons used in World War One–barbed wire. Before barbed wire, ranchers only had wooden fencing to keep their cattle away from other ranchers’ cattle. This fencing was expensive, so barbed wire was invented to help ranchers keep their cattle reined in for a good price. Barbed wire evolved in WWI as both sides’ deadliest defensive weapon. With over 645 kilometers, or 400 miles, of trenches dug out – from the coasts of France reaching Switzerland – trench warfare obviously dominated the war. Barbed wire played its role by covering the trenches dug out by both sides so that paths the enemy would take while advancing could be controlled or at least hindered by the placing of the wire. Eventually, the officers became adept with using barbed wire and even set up traps with them. The wires would be thickly tangled everywhere except for some intermittent gaps; these gaps were purposefully placed to invite enemy soldiers to barge through them only to arrive in an open space before getting rained on with machine-gun fire. The devastation wreaked by barbed wire on the war led to constant innovations from engineers to combat the nasty defense. From heavily-knitted, wire-resistant coats to bayonet wire cutters, the British hastened to gain the upper hand in trench warfare. sotoMeanwhile, the Germans kept busy by making the wire deadlier by making the points sharper and the material more resistant. They even created a version of barbed wire made from cheap sheet metal. By the end of the war, millions of people from both sides died because of barbed wire, an agricultural invention.  Of course, this invention eventually became obsolete as trench warfare was overrun by tanks, but this is just one case that goes to show how ingenious humans are at finding ways to fight each other. Posted by Lorenzo Soto


Eva Tanguay

Slate.com’s Jody Rosen has written a piece about Eva Tanguay, a forgotten vaudevillian who was one of the most famous singers of the early twentieth century. In her self-presentation and marketing, Tanguay rivaled Lady Gaga. Eva was ubiquitous. Rosen writes: “If you read the press and popular literature of the first quarter of the 20th century, Tanguay is inescapable. Edward Bernays, the celebrated ‘father of public relations,’ called Tanguay ‘our first symbol of emergence from the Victorian age.’ The journalist and playwright George Ade dubbed Theodore Roosevelt ‘the Eva Tanguay of politics.’ One of her hits was titled ‘They’ll Remember Me a Hundred Years From Now.’ To Tanguay’s contemporaries, it must have seemed less like a boast than a foregone conclusion.”

Eva Tanguay probably put this feathered costume together without the benefit of a stylist.

Eva Tanguay probably put this feathered costume together without the benefit of a stylist.

Yet, Rosen points out, Tanguay is now the opposite of a household name (what would that be? a library name?)

Which of our present-day recording artists will find themselves lost in the sands of time in a hundred years? Does the fact that these days everybody and their mother can record a record using an iMac and distribute it over the Internet mean that music will be more or less easy to preserve?