The Back Punch Revisited- “We can End the Silence”

The Back Punch involved extracting spinal fluid
from male Silver Roll subjects and having a male
potency serum made from these samples to be later
sold on the international market.
Image thanks to our friends at

On Friday, October 1st 2010, U. S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued an official apology to the Central American nation of Guatemala and to Guatemalans residing in the United States for something truly reprehensible that took place about 64 years ago.

Apparently, U.S. scientific researchers, all under the auspices of the U.S. Public Health Service, and with the permission of the Guatemalan government of the time, deliberately infected hundreds (official count is at about 1500) of Guatemalan subjects taken from the mental wards, prisons and from a group of prostitutes with sexually transmitted diseases.

This human experiment took place between 1946 and 1948 and the trail of discovery lead to Dr. Susan Reverby, the same professor of women’s and gender studies who authored two significant books on the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, the controversial experiments which prompted a previous official apology in May, 16 1997 from the then President of the United States, Bill Clinton. These experiments were conducted by the U.S.P.H.S. in order to document “the natural progression of the untreated disease.”

The Guatemalan experiments were similar in scope. “The scientists injected the patients with gonorrhea and syphilis — and even encouraged many of them to pass the disease on to others. While the Tuskegee experiment followed the natural progression of syphilis in those already infected, in Guatemala doctors introduced the disease into healthy people. The goal of the study seems to have been to determine the effect of penicillin in the prevention and treatment of venereal diseases. The researchers paid prostitutes infected with syphilis to have sex with prisoners and some subjects were infected by directly inoculating them with the bacterium. When the subjects contracted the disease they were given antibiotics though it is unclear if all infected parties were cured.”

“Along with the official apology the Obama administration has also asked the Institute of Medicine to conduct a review of these experiments. Also, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will ask a panel of international experts to review the current state of medical research on humans around the world and ensure that such incidents cannot be repeated.”

Which brings us to the Silver People of Panama. More than 70 years ago hundreds of male laborers of the Silver Roll who were on the verge of retirement were subjected to similar experimentation through what they themselves called “The Back Punch.” As we’ve described in our post on The Back Punch, it consisted of basically healthy subjects either submitting themselves to a painful and potentially dangerous spinal tap to extract spinal fluid or have their retirement papers “lost” or slow tracked to their detriment. The fluid samples were then forwarded to a lab in Switzerland to formulate a pricey serum to be sold on the international market as a remedy for male impotency.

Former President Bill Clinton alluded to something we want to underscore in the case of the Silver Men. He said:

“What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry … To our African American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist.”

We agree with former President Bill Clinton. We think it is time to end the silence concerning what our ancestors called “The Back Punch,” which caused anxiety and much suffering to thousands of laborers under the Gold and Silver Roll system and about the later secrecy with which all issues related to our Silver People of Panama have been treated to date.

At the very least this entire issue, which does touch directly upon bioethics violations by the U.S. Army, merits an investigation. Gorgas Hospital administered the spinal taps almost exclusively although some private clinics were said to have been involved. Since the hospital and labor records archived for this period are neither open nor available to the public, we ask that these records be investigated for possible human rights and bioethics violations.

We have been working towards gaining access to these records for more than three years now and we have been told that all those records are held by the U.S. State Department. These important records are vital to our intangible cultural heritage which has been virtually wiped out on the Black Canal Zone which our ancestors founded and colonized for almost a century.

This story continues.

9 responses to “The Back Punch Revisited- “We can End the Silence”

  1. Great! Thanks for the information. Due to the racist mentality of the time, I bet there are many more hidden aspects of our medical history that will surface in the near future. As a matter of fact, Ms. Mariela Sagel recently published an article about the sterilization scheme involving West Indian men during the Arfulfo Arias administration (1940-1941). There you go…there's another story for your blog.

    Best regard,

    Gabriel E. Leonard
    4W Magazine

  2. Peace,

    Thank you for the info.


  3. Friends,
    Thanks for a great article and your continued committment to 'ending the silence' about the Black experience in Panama.

  4. Gabriel,

    Thanks for your comment and I did read the article by Mariela Sagel. I noted her sense of outrage. Although people have forgotten much about how racist our society in Panama has been by trying to get on with their lives as best as possible, these are the kinds of attitudes that started the massive migrations of Panamanian Westindians especially to the U.S. The one she spoke about was obviously just part of a pattern over the years.

    The "Back Punch" came as a shock to us as well. Leaves you with a sense of how our early ancestors would have felt quite violated.

    Mr. Equa,

    Good to see you here again.

  5. Marvia,

    So good to see you here. Thank you for your encouraging words and for your continued prayers in support of what we are doing with the Heritage of the Silver People of Panama.


  6. This is shocking but not unexpected! I hope you don't mind that I will share this at our blog: AfroSpear!


  7. The "Back Punch" was not the only outrage inflicted on our fathers and grandfathers, when it came to those on "Cash-Relief" the cash was often withheld and pocketed by the "Supervisor", if he believed the recipient had other means and was "living too good."

  8. To Anonymous,

    Unbelievable as it may seem, we have received many accounts of this kind of steady harassment and meanness related to the sufferings of our forefathers.

    In our biography of Calton Francis in our Heritage web site he related:

    “Back then (1949, when he worked as a messenger on the Canal Zone) the Silver and Gold system was strictly enforced and there existed separate facilities for everything. At the time there were two water fountains in the area of the docks where he worked one was for whites and one for blacks. The drinking water for the Blacks, however, was “blue” since the gringos mixed a laxative into the water so that the Blacks would have very loose bowels.”

    Regarding the Back Punch, there are still living witnesses who recall vivid memories of the uproar raised by the Silver seniors and their families who “complained bitterly that hundreds of men were either killed or crippled after submitting themselves to this procedure; and all to assure that they would receive their pitiful retirement of $25.00 a month.”


  9. Kyle and Svet Keeton

    We had heard very little about this and now that I came across it here, I remember your article about this. Sorry – but 2 + 2 did not equate and I never related the information together.

    Now what about the thousands of other such violations that have been done by America?

    Sorry is really all we can say! To have treated you like humans would have been the best solution in the first place and then sorry would not need to be said…


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