Throughout history, stories involving asylums have been the front-runners in campfire tales all the way up the line to movies. There’s just something fascinating about a large population of insane people and the doctors’, staff’s and others’ treatment of these individuals. Of course, there is a much larger dark side that truly captivates; those stories of grim and inhumane experiments conducted on patients, prisoners and even civilians. Human experimentation in the name of science, defense, and education have been conducted countless times for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
The treatment of the mentally ill has been flawed since day one. First, simply locking them away, removing their organs, LSD and other psychoactive drug treatments, to psychosurgery and the Lobotomy. Nowadays, it’s medications and therapy. While the treatment has gotten more humane, it still has a long way to go since many mental health facilities are either overpopulated or understaffed. Indeed, in most cases, both.
Besides the confines of the institution, there were even more horrific experiments conducted on unwilling or unknowing subjects. No matter the locale, an experiment on a human subject is its own asylum. Created when a doctor goes mad in pursuit of knowledge or maybe fame but rarely to save those they were operating on.
While not all of these listed procedures are in asylums, they are the work of a madman.
15. One, Jesus. Two, Jesus. Three…
In 1959, social psychologist, Dr. Milton Rokeach wanted to cure delusion. He planned an experiment with three patients that had schizophrenia and believed they were Jesus Christ. He transferred all three Christs to live in the same mental institution. It began with bickering that graduated into full blown arguments. Mainly over which of them was the holiest. One would tell the others to worship him and another called the others pigs and that he was the true Christ. It eventually came to a fist fight. Slowly, things settled and they each sunk deeper into their delusions. Each one still believing he was Jesus Christ and the others were mental patients. Well, only two of them thought that. The third savior explained that the other two were dead and under the control of machines.
Rokeach took it a step further, while maybe not horrific, it was disturbing and just down right mean. He intervened in the three men’s lives twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. One Jesus, or Leo, believed he was married to a Madame Yeti Woman. All seven feet and two-hundred pounds of her. One day Leo started getting letters from his wife! He was happy beyond measure. So happy that when the letters ordered him to do things like sing during group or only smoke particular cigarettes, Leo didn’t question it. That is until Madame Yeti asked him to change his name. Leo began planning a divorce, which being Jesus, seems kind of silly, after the divorce meltdown Rokeach stopped writing the letters.
After two years, Rokeach ended the experiment with no results.
14. At Least There Was Time For Fun
From 1946 to 1948 the governments of the United States and Guatemala preformed a study on the effects of penicillin on syphilis. The specifics of this test was to find chemicals that could be used to prevent the disease from spreading.
For test subjects they used unknowing Guatemalan prison inmates. Either they were lured with a prostitute who happened to be already infected, or they got to do it the fun way! By abrading the skin of the penis and administering the disease directly. Upon confirming infection, the inmate was given penicillin to see if it would curb the illness— if the inmate was lucky that is. Only just over half were selected to receive the antibiotic, the others were put in the control group, so they got nothing. Over a third of the approximate 1500 victims fell into the ‘nothing’ group. More than eighty “volunteers” died in the study.
13. It’s Just A Mosquito
During World War II, the battle in the pacific theater was most likely some of the worst conditions in warfare history. Beyond the obvious dangers, there were also diseases. Malaria and other tropical illnesses were wreaking havoc on US troops fighting the Imperial Japanese.
In an effort to help, doctors from the University of Chicago began to test chemicals that could prevent or cure. Human trials were conducted on “volunteers” from Statesville Penitentiary who were exposed to the diseases via mosquitoes. The doctors found themselves with a decent sized sample as they infected a total of 441 inmates with malaria. The testing at Statesville continued for an impressive twenty-nine years. Luckily, there is only one reported death. That being said, it doesn’t make malaria any less painful. Nor does it justify their methods.
12. The Nazis Did What?
When a list has keywords like ‘horrific’ and ‘experiments’, you know the Nazis will be on it. They committed some seriously twisted stuff and practiced with a blank cheque in ethics. In one particular atrocity, SS doctors took new mothers and tied off their breast’s milk supply to observe how long it would take for the child to starve to death. Not in a comfortable manner either. Basically, they tied a cable around the actual breast cutting off the flow. One mother reportedly gave her baby a lethal dose of morphine to save it from suffering through starvation.
11. Midnight Climax
The Central Intelligence Agency’s heyday was likely the 60s. They moved in shadow and got away with black ops and secret experiments unchecked. One such operation, Midnight Climax, involved setting up safe houses in New York, Marin, and San Francisco. Call girls were used to bring men, subjects, to the houses where instead of sex they were induced with a dose of LSD or other mind-altering chemicals. Sometimes multiple doses of different ones, all while being observed through a one-way mirror.
Midnight Climax continued until 1966 when the last safe house was closed down in New York.
In 1977, the Inspector General’s Staff was doing a “wide range survey of technical data” or, in other words, checking up on the spies, when they discovered an operation called MKULTRA. A project that the CIA had been running for over twenty years focused on administering LSD to unknowing subjects. All in the pursuit of mind-control.
10. Cancer Fighter
The 1950s in America. Fully engulfed in the “American Dream” phase. A perfect lawn, cookie cutter house, and a large automobile in the driveway. Only problem in paradise was the looming shadow of possible nuclear annihilation. Just mention a research study concerning nuclear effects on humans and the government would throw money at your feet. Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, cancer researcher and future member of the Atomic Energy Commission, suggested such a study and was funded quickly. Rhoads picked minorities for his trials, particularly Puerto Ricans. He would inject them with ridiculous amounts of the material used to make atomic bombs. About one in four victims who had come to the hospital seeking aid, lived long enough to find out what happened to them.
Some, he spared the atomic cocktail and injected them with active cancer cells instead. He wanted to see the results to understand how the cells worked. His patients died too quickly to gather quality statistics.
“The Porto Ricans (sic) are the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever to inhabit the sphere… I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off eight and transplanting cancer into several more.” — Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, Time Magazine’s “Cancer-Fighter” hero.
9. Laboratory 12
The Soviet Union was always known for harboring its secrets. During the Cold War, secret facilities were all over the Sickle and Hammer’s land. One known as “The Chamber” ran by the Secret Police is reported to be the location of horrific experiments. Asylum patients and prisoners of the Gulags were exposed to toxins like mustard gas, ricin, digitoxin and other gases hidden in meals, beverages and even given as “medications.” Records are mysteriously sketchy from the Iron Curtain’s era, however, it’s said that the patients became violent over the quality of these meals, suffice it to say their stand ended quickly.
Eventually, the Secret Police did get their toxin. An odorless and tasteless nerve-toxin known as C-2. Those who have seen it in action report that the victim not only dies within fifteen minutes but also gets extremely weak and even shrinks.
8. The Children Of Willowbrook
From 1950 to 1972, Saul Krugman of New York University, promised parents of mentally and physically disabled children admission into the Willowbrook State School if they would allow vaccine testing on the children. As the parents were desperate for help, they happily agreed since vaccines would also benefit the child, they saw no harm in it. Little did they know that Krugman and his associates were not administering vaccines, they were actually infecting the children with viral hepatitis. Aside from this questionable deed, the method was just as unpleasant. They infected the children by feeding them an extract made from the feces of infected patients.
7. Splinters Are The Worst
Our favorite people to hate, the Nazis are back again at number seven. Among the long list of horrific atrocities committed under the guise of experiment is when those pesky SS doctors did something rash— even for them.
They would expose asylum patients and inmates to streptococcus, tetanus, and gangrene. The Nazis would create wounds on the victims to simulate those obtained on the battlefield. They even cut off blood vessels to get as accurate a simulation as possible. To make matters worse, shrapnel (material from a bomb, shell, or bullet that has exploded) was then added to the equation in the form of wood shavings and glass particles, rubbed deeply into the wound.
6. You Didn’t Need Them, Did You?
Dr. Leo Stanley was the chief surgeon at San Quentin Prison from 1913 to 1951. He preformed a variety of surgeries on the inmates, but he’s particularly known for his practice in testicular transplants. That’s right, testicular transplants. Stanley would remove the beans from a recently deceased inmate and attempt to put them in another inmate after removing his original nuggets. As unsettling as this procedure is, it gets worse. Stanley didn’t stop at human gonads. He tried it with sheep, ram, goat, and boar. Not surprisingly, none of the transplants would take.
5. Unbearable Pain
In 2010, one of the largest weapon manufacturers in the United States, Raytheon, announced that they had made arrangements with a prison in California to test its new Active Denial System, some call it the “Death Ray.” This weapon “fires an invisible heat beam capable of causing unbearable pain.” The project needed test subjects and the prison needed funding. The Pentagon had denied testing in Iraq, they felt it was too tempting to be used as an “instrument of torture.”
While prisoner test records are sketchy at best, there are other people the system has been testing on. Volunteers even. The power of the beam can be controlled and the weapon can serve as a tool for crowd control. At it’s higher output levels it can cause third-degree burns and even kill. A spokesperson for the Air Force Research Laboratory served as a volunteer and described his experience:
“For the first millisecond it just felt like the skin was warming up. Then it got warmer and warmer and you felt like your skin was on fire. As soon as you are out of the beam your skin returns to normal and there is no pain.”
4. Unit 731
During World War II, Imperial Japan ran a biological and chemical warfare research and development center called Unit 731 headed by Dr. Shiro Ishii. He and his team carried out violent experiments on tens of thousands of asylum patients, prisoners of war, and civilians alike.
Vivisection was Dr. Ishii’s experiment of choice. Another term for vivisection is ‘exploratory surgery’. Opening up a human just to see what’s inside. He also induced strokes, heart attacks, frost bite, and hypothermia. He called his test subjects “logs.”
In 1945, with ally troops closing in, Ishii ordered Unit 731 to be destroyed and the remaining “logs” executed. When Ishii was captured, instead of being put on trial for war crimes, he was offered asylum in the US in exchange for his knowledge of biological and chemical warfare. Dr. Shiro Ishii got away with genocide.
3. It’s Just Boiling Water
The journals of Walter F. Jones, a Virginian scientist, were a testament of horrific experiments conducted in the 19th century. Beginning in the 1840s, Jones began experimenting on African-American slaves in search of a cure for typhoid. He had a theory that the process would be extremely painful so slaves, being property, would be used since they were considered lower than human. His ‘research’ involved Jones pouring boiling water on their backs in four hour intervals.
In the journal, Jones goes into detail about how one patient, a sickly 25-year-old male, was made to lay face down with his arms out to his side, while Jones dumped five gallons of boiling water on his back. “The patient showed signs of discomfort.” Jones went to his deathbed still claiming his experiments saved many lives. No independent study was ever conducted.
2. Henry Cotton
Dr. Henry Cotton was the head of an asylum in Trenton in the early 1900s. Cotton was a pioneer of what would later be known as psychosurgery. He believed that insanity was biological and began experimental surgical techniques on his patients.
First, he would remove the teeth and tonsils. If that didn’t work, the internal organ he deemed was the cause of the particular patient’s insanity. Was Cotton insane? Well, most likely, except his heart was in the right place. He truly believed his methods worked and even preformed them on himself and his family. Cotton extracted teeth from himself, his wife, and even removed part of his son’s colon. His son suffered from A.D.D. and depression.
Cotton claimed that he had a high success rate and justified 49 deaths by saying that the patients had been in a late stage of psychosis at the time anyway. An independent investigation found that Cotton’s claims were exaggerated. Even so, his critics and others believe that Cotton was at least sincere in his efforts to cure— he just chose a crazy way to go about it.
1. The Lobotomy
The most horrific asylum experiment goes to a procedure that was brutally preformed on thousands of people around the globe; The Lobotomy. A form of psychosurgery, the patient’s scalp was cut away and a hole drilled through the skull so the surgeon could access the brain and scrape away most of the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex and the anterior of the frontal lobe. This made for a very cooperative and docile patient. The first of its kind was done in 1888 by Gottlieb Burckhardt. During his experiment he removed the cerebral cortex of six asylum patients.
The lobotomy had its Golden Age in the 40s and 50s. It went through its own evolution finally becoming the Transorbital Lobotomy. A procedure that didn’t involve drilling through the skull, it instead went to the brain via the eye socket. It had been designed so even psychiatrists could preform it.
In the United States approximately 40,000 people were lobotomized.
The United Kingdom, 17,000.
Scandinavian hospitals lobotomized 2.5 times as many people per capita as the US.