Medical progress saves lives, but sometimes scientists let the hope of a breakthrough get in the way of ethics. Recently, the United States government issued a formal apology to Guatemala for experiments done there in the 1940s that involved infecting prisoners and mental patients with syphilis.
The Guatemala project is just one of many terrible experiments done in the name of medicine. Some ethical lapses are mistakes by people sure they’re doing the right thing. Other times, they’re pure evil. Here are seven of the worst experiments on human subjects in history.
NAZI MEDICAL EXPERIMENTS
Perhaps the most infamous evil experiments of all time were those carried out by Josef Mengele, an SS physician at Auschwitz. Mengele combed the incoming trains for twins upon which to experiment, hoping to prove his theories of the racial supremacy of Aryans. Many died in the process. He also collected the eyes of his dead “patients,” according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Nazis used prisoners to test treatments for infectious diseases and chemical warfare. Others were forced into freezing temperatures and low-pressure chambers for aviation experiments. Countless prisoners were subjected to experimental sterilization procedures. One woman had her breasts tied off with string so SS doctors could see how long it took her baby to starve, according to an oral history collected by the Holocaust Museum. She eventually injected the child with a lethal dose of morphine to keep it from suffering longer.
Some of the doctors responsible for these atrocities were later tried as war criminals, but Mengele escaped to South America. He died in Brazil in 1979 of a stroke.
JAPAN’S UNIT 731
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Japanese Imperial Army conducted biological warfare and medical testing on civilians, mostly in China. The death toll of these brutal experiments is unknown, but as many as 200,000 may have died, according to a 1995 New York Times report.
Among the atrocities were wells infected with cholera and typhoid and plague-ridden fleas spread across Chinese cities. Prisoners were marched in freezing weather and then experimented on to determine the best treatment for frostbite. Former members of the unit have told media outlets that prisoners were dosed with poison gas, put in pressure chambers until their eyes popped out, and even dissected while alive and conscious. After the war, the U.S. government helped keep the experiments secret as part of a plan to make Japan a cold-war ally, according to the Times report.
THE “MONSTER STUDY”
In 1939, speech pathologists at the University of Iowa set out to prove their theory that stuttering was a learned behavior caused by a child’s anxiety about speaking. Unfortunately, the way they chose to go about this was to try to induce stuttering in orphans by telling them they were doomed to start stuttering in the future.
Yes, orphans. The researchers sat down with children at the Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Orphans’ Home and told them they were showing signs of stuttering and shouldn’t speak unless they could be sure that they would speak right. The experiment didn’t induce stuttering, but it did make formerly normal children anxious, withdrawn and silent.
Future Iowa pathology students dubbed the study, “the Monster Study,” according to a 2003 New York Times article on the research. Three surviving children and the estates of three others eventually sued Iowa and the university. In 2007, Iowa settled for a total of $925,000.
THE BURKE AND HALE MURDERS
Until the 1830s, the only legally available bodies for dissection by anatomists were those of executed murderers. Executed murderers being a relative rarity, many anatomists took to buying bodies from grave robbers ¾ or doing the robbing themselves.
Edinburgh boardinghouse owner William Hare and his friend William Burke took this entrepreneurial activity one step further. From 1827 to 1828, the two men smothered more than a dozen lodgers at the boardinghouse and sold their bodies to anatomist Robert Knox, according to Mary Roach’s “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003). Knox apparently didn’t notice (or didn’t care) that the bodies his newest suppliers were bringing him were suspiciously fresh, Roach wrote.
Burke was later hanged for his crimes, and the case spurred the British government to loosen the restrictions on dissection.
SURGICAL EXPERIMENTS ON SLAVES
The father of modern gynecology, J. Marion Sims, gained much of his fame by doing experimental surgeries (sometimes several per person) on slave women. Sims remains a controversial figure to this day, because the condition he was treating in the women, vesico-vaginal fistula, caused terrible suffering. Women with fistulas, a tear between the vagina and bladder, were incontinent and were often rejected by society.
Sims performed the surgeries without anesthesia, in part because anesthesia had only recently been discovered, and in part because Sims believed the operations were “not painful enough to justify the trouble,” as he said in an 1857 lecture.
Arguments still rage as to whether Sims’ patients would have consented to the surgeries had they been entirely free to choose. Nonetheless, wrote University of Alabama social work professor Durrenda Ojanuga in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 1993, Sims “manipulated the social institution of slavery to perform human experimentations, which by any standard is unacceptable.”
GUATEMALA SYPHILIS STUDY
Many people erroneously believe that the government deliberately infected the Tuskegee participants with syphilis, which was not the case. But the work of Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby recently exposed a time when U.S. Public Health Service researchers did just that. Between 1946 and 1948, Reverby found, the U.S. and Guatemalan governments co-sponsored a study involving the deliberate infection of Guatemalan prisoners and mental asylum patients with syphilis.
The study was intended to test chemicals to prevent the spread of the disease. The researchers attempted to infect their subjects both by paying for them to have sex with infected prostitutes and by abrading the skin on their penises and pouring cultured syphilis bacteria on the wounds.
Those who got syphilis were given penicillin as a treatment, Reverby found, but the records she uncovered indicate no follow-up or informed consent by the participants. On Oct. 1, 2010, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a joint statement apologizing for the experiments.