Do noble ends ever justify evil means? The question is hackneyed, yes, but it cannot be ignored when considering the ethics of human experimentation. After all, most experiments performed on humans are conducted for noble ends, such as to develop treatments for disease and to enrich knowledge in various sciences. But where exactly should the line be drawn in terms of what is acceptable and unacceptable when experimenting on humans?
Complicating the issue even further is what to do with the undeniably valuable data generated by some unethical human experiments. Should the findings from these objectionable scientific undertakings be discarded, or should such knowledge nevertheless be used for noble ends, regardless of the means by which these findings were derived?
Perhaps, a closer look at ten of the most unethical experiments ever performed on humans can provide some important insights.
10. Testicular Experiments on Prisoners
Between 1913 and 1951, San Quentin Prison’s chief surgeon, Dr. Leo Stanley, conducted numerous testicular experiments on inmates. Among the goals of his experiments was to determine if various manipulations on the testicles of men would produce desired results, including the rejuvenation of old men, the limitation of criminal behavior, and the prevention of reproduction by those deemed “unfit to be parents.”
One of the experiments involved the removal of testicles from healthy prisoners who had been executed, and the implantation of these testicles into senile prisoners. The hope was that the senile prisoners would display improved mental health. Surprisingly, Stanley claimed the experiment a success, one 72-year-old reportedly emerging from advanced senility to display youthful “jazz and pep.”
Yet another study entailed implanting the testicles of goats, rams, and boars into inmates. However, the procedures proved unsatisfactory when the implanted testicles ended up being rejected by the inmates’ bodies, so Stanley instead mashed the animal testicles “to the consistency of toothpaste,” then injected the substance into patients’ abdomens. Again, the doctor reported that the injections resulted in renewed virility in the subjects.
9. Negative Speech Therapy on Children
There’s a reason this experiment is commonly referred to as The Monster Study. In 1939, graduate student Mary Tudor, supervised by her University of Iowa professor Wendell Johnson, secretly made use of 22 children from an orphanage for an experiment on stuttering. The subjects, 10 of whom had previously been identified as stutterers, were divided into two groups, each with 5 stutterers and 6 regular speakers. The children in the first group, including the 5 stutterers, were told that their speech was fine. Meanwhile, those in the second group, including the 5 children whose speech was fine, were told that they were stutterers whose speech behavior had to be corrected. In the end, the results of the study proved inconclusive. But disturbingly, most of the non-stutterers who were told that they suffered from a speech defect ended up displaying various speech-related problems, including markedly worse performance in school and a tendency to be withdrawn. In fact, in 2007, 68 years after the questionable experiment, the State of Iowa awarded six of the children a total of $925,000 for their psychological suffering.
8. Spraying Bacteria Over a City
During the 1950s, the U.S. government sprayed bacteria over entire cities, not as actual biological warfare, but as simulations of biological attacks to prepare for such eventualities. One such experiment took place over the city of San Francisco in 1950. In the study, cultures of Serratia marcesens, a type of rust-colored bacterium previously believed to be harmless to humans, were sprayed via a boat to understand how these would be dispersed. Unfortunately, the experiment seemed to turn out much more realistically than hoped as eleven Stanford University Hospital patients actually developed Serratia infections, one of the patients ending up dead. A case filed in relation to the incident resulted in the suit being dismissed as the judge determined that the government had exercised due discretion in its experiment.
7. Experiments on Cerebral Palsied Children
From 1955 to 1960, the Sonoma State Hospital in California conducted various secret experiments on children with cerebral palsy. The studies were uncovered by Karen Alves, a sister of one of the experiments’ deceased subjects, after President Clinton had ordered the declassification of documents relating to human radiation experiments. One of those documents showed that Karen’s cerebral palsied brother, Mark, had been included in a study where patients were made to undergo extremely painful procedures, including the injection of air into the patients’ brains. Furthermore, Mark’s medical records showed that before the 6-year-old boy died in 1961, he had suffered from seizures, swollen eyes, and extremely high fevers — symptoms consistent with radiation poisoning.
6. Skin Testing on Prison Inmates
The late Dr. Albert Kligman is fondly remembered for having invented Retin-A, the popular acne medication, but his legacy is also unfortunately stained by allegations that several experiments he conducted in the Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia were unethical. Kligman was invited to the facility in 1951, when inmates were suffering from an athlete’s foot outbreak, and the dermatologist quickly grabbed the opportunity to turn the prison into a product-testing laboratory. The experiments, involving deodorants, skin creams, and hair products, among others, seemed harmless, but congressional hearings and national publicity later revealed that mind-altering drugs, radioactive substances, and various pathogens were also tested on paid prisoners. A case filed by hundreds of former inmates in 2000 failed to prosper because the statute of limitations was found to have expired.
5. Developing Trauma in a Baby
The Little Albert experiment, conducted by John Hopkins University professor John Watson and his student Rosalie Rayner, intended to prove two theories: (1) that fear itself was innate, rather than conditioned, and (2) that a child could be conditioned to fear particular things. The subject of the experiment was Douglas Merritte, whom a 2010 study revealed was the baby of wet nurse Arvilla Merritte. In the Little Albert experiment, the 9-month-old was first exposed to various animals (a rabbit, a rat, a dog, a monkey) and objects (masks, cotton, wool, and burning newspapers, among others), and Little Albert displayed no fear of the stimuli. Then, a loud clanging sound (the innately feared stimulus) was introduced the next time the baby touched the rat, causing the child to cry. Later, when only the rat was presented without the sound, Little Albert cried and tried to move away from the animal, thus seeming to prove that he had been conditioned to fear the rat. For obvious reasons, the experiment is today considered ethically unacceptable.
4. Injecting Cancer Cells into Patients
In the 1950s, immunology expert Chester Southam wanted to find out if cancer was contagious, so he injected over a hundred volunteer prisoners at the Ohio State Penitentiary with cancer cells. As he had theorized, the inmates subsequently developed tumors. Next, the scientist wanted to determine if cancer patients would be affected any differently by such injections. He conducted the experiment at Brooklyn’s Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital. Disturbingly, Southam didn’t tell patients that they were being injected with cancer cells, and instead made them believe they were receiving human cells grown in test tubes. Later, some doctors at the hospital exposed Southam’s misdeeds, and he was punished with one year of probation. Nevertheless, just a few years later, the American Association for Cancer Research elected Southam as its president.
3. Radioactive Iodine in Pregnant Women and Newborns
The United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) is responsible for conducting numerous radiation experiments that are today condemned as being grossly unethical. Among these experiments were two 1953 studies in the University of Iowa, where newborns and pregnant women were exposed to radioactive iodine. The first one involved exposing pregnant women to radioactive iodine, then studying their aborted embryos in order to understand the way the way the radiation affected pregnancy. The second entailed administering, orally or through injection, radioactive iodine to 25 newborns in order to measure the accumulated iodine in the babies’ thyroid glands. Not surprisingly, the AEC was abolished in 1974 after it suffered from widespread criticism.
2. Blood Flow in Newborns
In the 1960s, the Department of Pediatrics of the University of California conducted a study on blood flow and blood pressure changes in infants aged one hour to three days. Despite the noble objectives of the endeavor, the methods used by the scientists on the 113 newborn babies were disturbingly crude. First, a catheter was inserted into each child’s umbilical artery until the instrument reached the aorta. Then, the infants’ feet were immersed in ice-cold water to quickly lower the children’s temperatures, after which the aortic pressure created by the immersion was measured. Furthermore, 50 of the subjects were strapped unto a circumcision board, which was afterwards tilted, so that blood rushed into the infants’ heads. The resulting blood flow and blood pressure changes were then measured.
1. Syphilis Left Untreated
In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service, in collaboration with the Tuskegee Institute, began a study to determine the natural progression of syphilis when left untreated. 600 poor sharecroppers from Alabama, 399 of whom had previously contracted syphilis, were selected as subjects for the study. While the experiment certainly possessed scientific merit, those responsible for the study shockingly lied to the subjects by telling them that they were being treated, when in truth, they were not. Worse, the subjects were discouraged from seeking treatment for their disease elsewhere. In fact, even after 1940, when penicillin had been accepted as the treatment of choice for syphilis, the subjects were still not administered the drug. It was only when the story went to press and sparked widespread outrage in 1972 that the study was finally terminated. Subsequently, in 1974, a class action suit filed by the NAACP resulted in an out-of-court settlement worth $10 million.