Why Did Susan Reverby Wait So Long?

Published October 4, 2010

When Susan Reverby discovered that American scientists in the 1940s had injected Guatemalan prisoners with syphilis, she was “horrified.” But the Wellesley College professor and Cantabrigian waited months to publicize her finding — and even then, hardly anyone noticed.

“I did some research on this a little while ago, and then I went back to the (University of) Pittsburgh archives in June of ’09. I didn’t get to write this up until … March of 2010,” Reverby told me by phone today.

Wellesley College Prof. Susan Reverby

Wellesley College Prof. Susan Reverby

Reverby was doing research for her book about the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study — she helped persuade President Clinton to apologize for it in 1997 — when she stumbled upon unpublished notes about this other horrible experiment.

“I was just completely blown away by this, really horrified,” she said.

“I thought about putting it in my book, but it just didn’t fit. It seemed like it needed its own story, so I held on to try and write it up appropriately.”

As a blogger, I’m almost as blown away that Reverby held on to this news for so long. It’s a scoop any journalist would salivate over.

But Reverby is a historian, not a journalist.

“The context matters. I just don’t work like that. It never would have even occurred to me to do that, never in a million years,” she said. “I’m not a gotcha journalist. I’m not a blogger.”

Back in May, Reverby presented a paper in “the last session of the last day of the last hour” of a conference in Minnesota, but the story didn’t go anywhere.

“I mean, my colleagues were horrified, of course, but you know, we’re historians, we’re used to stories, in some ways, like this,” she said. “There was a lot of discussion of the poeple who were there, but no one went screaming to the National Enquirer.”

Recently, a contact  named David Sencer, who directed the CDC in the 1960s and ’70s, asked if he could forward Reverby’s work to people at the agency. “I said, sure. And then it just went up the chain of command after that,” she said.

When the New York Times got a hold of the story on Friday, it spanned the globe in nanoseconds. Hours later, President Obama apologized to Guatemala.

In our phone interview, Reverby politely explained that she did not have long to talk. The Chinese national media was on its way over.