Modern medicine has advanced far beyond what anyone could envision a few decades ago. We’ve devised a way to ‘switch off’ cancer cell growth, created nanobots that can be used to precisely deliver medication, and we’re contemplating a human head transplant as early as 2017.
But these breakthroughs didn’t come easy; at every stage, a price was paid for all innovation. The head transplant scenario is feasible now because of a series of experiments done in 1970. Neuroscientist Robert White attached the decapitated head of a monkey to the decapitated body of another monkey.
This experiment actually worked… to an extent. The monkey head ‘woke up’ and stayed alive for over a day before dying. These days, organizations like PETA make sure tests like that can never happen again.
This leaves researchers scrambling for volunteers for clinical trials. Faced with a lack of volunteers, some committed researchers use themselves as guinea pigs. But this isn’t always the case; some scientists have resorted to tricking volunteers into participating. In other cases, they don’t even tell them they’re part of a study. The following are 10 sick scientific experiments, where the subject often had no idea they were being used.
10. Project 4.1
The detonation of the hydrogen bomb in Castle Bravo in March 1954, was supposed to be a secret. But the ensuing 15 megaton explosion led to it becoming the most significant radioactive contamination ever. Borne by the wind, residents of the nearby Marshall Islands were soon exposed to the fallout.
When the US government realized this, instead of ordering a mass evacuation, they chose to study the situation and see what developed. The effects were noticed at different speeds, based on individual proximity to the blast. For citizens closest to the blast, skin damage in the form of lesions quickly appeared and their hair fell out. Over the next decade, the rate of miscarriages and stillbirths went up then down.
But over a longer period, more kids were born with developmental problems and a higher rate of thyroid cancer. The blast also rendered the atolls completely uninhabitable. While the Americans claim the incident was an unfortunate accident, the island residents remain convinced that they were used as guinea pigs in a radiation ‘experiment.’
9. The Vanderbilt Radioactive Iron Experiment
In 1945, Vanderbilt University claimed it was running a nutrition study for pregnant women. Claiming their pills would help with anemia, they gave 829 women tablets laced with radioactive iron.
Researchers wanted to see just how much iron could be absorbed by a pregnant woman. The pills exposed the women to radiation 30 times higher than normal levels. And that wasn’t all; a secondary objective was to observe the long term effects of radiation on the children born.
A follow-up study found that three of the children had died of cancer-related illnesses. Vanderbilt was sued by the mothers of the dead children, and had to pay out $ 10.3 million in 1998.
8. The STD experiments
Syphilis was a pretty common illness among black sharecroppers, in 1930’s Tuskegee. The treatments available at the time, mercury ointments and Arsphenamine, were found to be toxic. Administering them always caused mouth ulcers, rashes and eventual liver damage.
Rather than finding a suitable cure, the US Public Health Service decided to experiment by withholding treatment from syphilis-infected African Americans. For 40 years, patients were denied treatment for the disease. They were either given a placebo or deliberately misdiagnosed. Of the 400 patients studied, only 74 were alive by the end of the experiment. During the course of the study, 40 of the patients wives had contracted the disease and 20 children were born with congenital syphilis.
But that wasn’t the only syphilis experiment carried out; in 1947, when penicillin was found to cure the disease, the US government decided to test its efficacy. Moving to Guatemala, American researchers paid infected prostitutes to spread the disease to unsuspecting johns. Some were given penicillin to see if it would cure them, others were denied treatment. Of the 500 people denied treatment, 80 died.
This study was kept secret until a Tuskegee researcher found it in 2010; its exposure led to President Obama apologizing to the Guatemalan people.
7. The Monster Study
In 1939, a speech pathologist, Dr. Wendell Johnson, visited an orphanage in Iowa to test a hypothesis. Determined to prove that stuttering could be cured, he rounded up a group of 22 orphans. Not all his ‘participants’ had a speech impediment, so he mixed stutterers with non-stutterers. He planned to see if he could induce a stutter in normal children and cure those that already stuttered.
Over the course of five months, Davenport and his assistant used positive reinforcement via praise when addressing the group of stutterers. For the group with normal speech, they constantly criticized the way they spoke. By the time the experiment ended, the orphans who didn’t start with a stutter, had developed one. Those in the negative reinforcement group, that started with a stutter became worse than before. Despite efforts to reverse the stutter of those who suddenly developed them, it was never successful.
6. The Edgewood Arsenal Study
After the end of WW II, the US Army Chemical Corps spent the next 25 years trying to evaluate the impact of chemical warfare agents on military personnel. The Corp soon enrolled 5,000 – 7,000 soldiers in their ‘Medical Research Volunteer Program.’
These soldiers were told they were testing new Army field jackets, clothing, weapons etc. In reality, the soldiers were exposed to over 250 different chemicals, ranging from caffeine to LSD to tranquilizers to nerve gas.
Carried out at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, military scientists were soon unsatisfied with the more mundane effects of the experiments. Slight dizziness, intoxication and depression were not deemed ‘noteworthy’ results. One scientist reportedly asked “Can we make a weapon that will incapacitate people mentally and not kill them?”
When the program ended, the participants were sent home and no follow-up was ever planned. The participating soldiers all suffered psychological trauma and have suffered from a host of diseases that they blame on the experiments. When confronted, the Army has kept mum on the incident and even denied doing anything untoward to the soldiers.
5. Minnesota Starvation Experiment
To tackle the food shortage at the end of WW II, the US military studied the effects of calorie restriction so it could create a solution. The participants used were a group known as conscientious objectors; young men who didn’t go to war due to religious beliefs. For the first two months, the men were well fed to get them up to their optimum weight. Then the experiment began with a drastic cut in rations, to mimic what was available to civilians. High in carbs and low in protein, the meals mostly consisted of insisted of cabbage, rye bread, beans, but no meat.
In addition to the caloric restriction, participants were urged to walk 36 km per week. The experiment also forced them to jog past bakeries and restaurants. Some soon began to drop out and those that stayed suffered even weirder effects.
They all lost up to 25% of their body weight, experienced anemia and depression. One participant got kicked out for having cannibalistic thoughts, while another managed to study for a law degree.
Though the experiment ended with subjects looking like concentration-camp victims, Keys had an answer to his hypothesis. He postulated that a person needed around 4,000 calories a day to recover from near-starvation.
4. Serratia Testing In San Francisco
For six days in September 1950, a military vessel patrolled the San Francisco bay, spraying a huge cloud of Serratia marcescens into the air. Neither the USCG or the SFPD scrambled to the spot to arrest the crew, because it wasn’t an enemy attacking.
The vessel was manned by American military scientists testing the viability of an enemy launching a biological attack on a port city. Being proactive made sense, but their choice of biological agent, Serratia, is a known human pathogen. The experiment was considered successful when the scientists found red colonies of the microbe on soil many miles inland, proving that a port city could be attacked.
However, soon after, 11 people were admitted to Stanford University with symptoms that baffled doctors. The sudden increase in pneumonia and UTI cases led to the doctors writing about the outbreak in a medical journal. One patient even died from complications caused by the bacteria. It eventually emerged that the entire experiment was unnecessary and they had needlessly exposed over 150,000 innocent civilians to a deadly bacteria.
3. The Holmesburg Perfume Experiments
The brilliant dermatologist, Albert Kligman, found a unique way around that pesky problem of a lack of clinical test subjects. He is credited with the invention of Retin-A, but he is also infamous for his experimenting on prisoners.
In 1951, Kligman was invited to Holmesburg Prison to help treat an outbreak of athlete’s foot. Kligman soon realized he had struck gold; in an interview, he said “All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a field for the first time.” Here was a throng of relatively healthy men of all ages, who would do his every bidding for a few cash favors.
Kilgman soon became a regular at Holmesburg, but it wasn’t just money that he brought. For the next 20 years, he ran experiments on the prisoners for government agencies and Big Pharma. Some experiments involved perfume, deodorant, shampoo, foot powders; but not all of them were so benign. Kligman also tested dioxin, mind-altering drugs and radioactive isotopes on the prisoners.
The experiments finally came to an end in 1974, but till his death in 2010, Kligman denied any wrongdoing. There was also no way to prove anything, as he destroyed all the records when the program was ended.
2. The Electroshock Therapy Experiment
While Dr. Lauretta Bender is best known for developing the Bender-Gestalt Test, some former patients remember her for something worse. While working at Bellevue Hospital, between 1930 to 1956, Bender routinely experimented on ‘curing schizophrenic children’.
Bender used electroconvulsive therapy on ‘schizophrenic’ children; shocking one group everyday, for 20 days in a row. During her time at Bellevue, she is thought to have shocked up to 100 children between the ages of three and 12.
The repeated frying of young brain cells led to life-changing consequences for many of her patients. Most experienced drastic behavior changes, changing from shy to violent; in some cases, almost catatonic. One of those who became violent after the ECT was tried for multiple murders, a few decades later.
1. The Sexual Identity Experiment
In 1966, Janet Reimer gave birth to healthy twin boys, but her happiness was short-lived. While a doctor was circumcising her son Bruce, he burnt the infant’s genitals so badly that they had to be completely removed.
The confused parents visited Dr. John Money, a sexual identity expert. He advised them to perform a sex change operation and raise him as a girl, Brenda. Unbeknownst to them, by taking his advice, they were playing into Money’s hands. He simply wanted a real-life experiment to prove a hypothesis.
Raised as Brenda, Bruce never fit into the female role, ditching dresses and dolls for toy guns. Money continued to assure the parents that he was only going through a phase while he was publishing papers about the ‘successful’ experiment. Whenever he was taken to see the psychologist, Money tried to browbeat the child into accepting being a girl.
When the truth finally came out, Bruce decided to revert to being a male and changed his name to David. He had re-constructive surgery and got married. But his deeply traumatic childhood led to depression and the breakdown of his marriage. Two years after his brother died in 2002, David Reimer committed suicide.
Money was never prosecuted, and remained an emeritus professor at Johns Hopkins till he died in 2006.