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15 Most Terrifying Human Experiments In History

Tech & Science
15 Most Terrifying Human Experiments In History

Experimenting on humans is typically seen as science fiction. In Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” a classic adventure story from 1924, the mad Russian General Zaroff uses a private island to hunt down humans. Ennui brought this on. After all, after man has mastered the hunting of all other creatures, only the most dangerous game (humanity itself) is left.

Years before, in 1896, English writer H.G. Wells took on the practice of vivisection with his science fiction novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Here, a mad doctor attempts to turn beasts into men. The results are horrifying. The 1932 film adaptation, Island of Lost Souls, takes Wells’ suggestions and amplifies them dramatically. The original Doctor Moreau’s lust for science is replaced by a more primal lust for procreation and torture.

In thousands of other tales and films, mad scientists operate on the human body in order to become famous or to pursue unthinkable ends. Sadly, human experimentation is not totally fictional. History is replete with evidence of scientific madness, some of which was conducted with the express permission of central or state authorities. The following 15 cases of human experimentation provide evidence of the depravity of certain human beings.

15. The Cells of Henrietta Lacks

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Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman originally from southern Virginia, provided the genetical material that helped to solve the riddles of polio, cancer, gene mapping, and other issues related to the human body. Despite this, Lacks died penniless. Her own family did not know about her contributions to science and society until years after her death.

As recounted in journalist Rebecca Skloot’s biography of Lacks, after Lacks came down with cervical cancer at the age of 30, she sought treatment at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University. There, unbeknownst to Lacks, a doctor removed her tumor and sent it down to researchers who were then trying to grow cells. There, cells removed from Lacks’ body became known as HeLa Cells–the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture.

This breakthrough did little to save Lacks. She died in 1951 at the tender age of thirty-one. For years, scientists hid her identity behind multiple pseudonyms. Finally, journalists tracked down the real Henrietta Lacks in the 1970s.

14. The Tearoom Study

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Not that long ago, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder. Scientists, doctors, and psychiatrists treated it accordingly. However, with the coming of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, many began to question this consensus. One sociologist, Laud Humphreys, decided to dispel the myths surrounding homosexuality in a way that may have been considered unethical.

Originally his Ph.D. dissertation at Washington University in St. Louis, Humphreys’ 1970 book Tearoom Trade recounts how he served as a “watchqueen” (slang for a lookout) for men seeking to perform fellatio on other men in public bathrooms. This practice of  “tearoom sex” provided a majority of arrests for homosexuality during the time. According to Humphreys’ research, “tearoom sex” was more common than previously believed. In fact, Humphreys’ concluded that fifty-four percent of his subjects were married men, while another thirty-eight percent were identifiably heterosexual.

Critics of Humphreys’ study not only took umbrage with the fact that he participated in illegal activities, but that he also conducted his survey without informing his subjects first.

13. The Stomach Test

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In the 1820s, medical knowledge on the American frontier was primitive. So, when French Canadian voyageur Alexis St. Martin was struck in the stomach by the accidental discharge of a shotgun at close range, he was presumed to be a dead man walking. After calling for a doctor, St. Martin was treated by a U.S. Army surgeon named Dr. William Beaumont, who was then stationed at nearby Fort Mackinac.

At just thirty-seven, the New England native Beaumont was a capable and brilliant doctor who was primarily self-taught. Within days he managed to stop pneumonia and fever from killing St. Martin. Beaumont’s primary method was bleeding, which proved beneficial to the wounded man. However, St. Martin’s stomach still contained a fistula that would not seal. Seizing the hole as a chance to pursue medical research, Beaumont began shoving food into the wound, then pulling it back out. After doing this numerous times, Beaumont proved that human digestion is a chemical process.

12. Project Artichoke

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Project Artichoke was run by the Central Intelligence Agency during the heady Cold War days of the 1950s and ’60s. Designed to study “‘special’ interrogation methods,” the project experimented on living patients in order to gage whether or not it was possible for unwilling people to be “brainwashed.” The top secret project lasted from 1951 until 1967.

Initially, the project was limited in scope. The top brass of the CIA wanted to test how successful different types of interrogation techniques could effectively gather intelligence. Within a few years, Project Artichoke started testing whether or not long-distance and longterm mind control was possible. Numerous Americans, most of whom did not know that they were subjects, were tested to see if mind control was viable.

All told, Project Artichoke tried to achieve mind control through the use of both stimulants and depressants, hypnosis, and new experimental drugs like LSD. This latter substance was tested on both volunteers and CIA agents who were drugged without their consent.

11. The Tragedy of David Reimer

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At just eight months old, David Reimer of Canada was chosen as an unwitting participant in an experiment. With the blessing of his parents, Reimer, who was born as a biological male, underwent a controversial circumcision via cauterization. The surgery was botched. Dr. John Money, an American psychologist who supervised the experiment to test his belief that gender is learned, convinced Reimer’s parents to raise him as a girl. Over the years, Reimer was treated by Dr. Money, who plied him with hormone treatments.

Reimer became a minor celebrity in the 1970s. Known as the “John/Joan Case,” Reimer, who was raised as a girl for most of his life, was held up as a shining example of gender fluidity and humanity’s ability to change sex roles at will. Unfortunately, Dr. Money’s experiment scarred Reimer physically and psychologically for the rest of his short life. According to later confessions, Reimer claimed that he had never identified as a girl and had been forced to act feminine against his will. At the age of thirty-eight, Reimer committed suicide.

10. Radioactive Women

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Called a “nutrition study,” researchers at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University exposed some 820 pregnant women to radioactive iron between the years of 1945 and 1947. Funded by the U.S. Public Health Service, which was interested in improving scientific knowledge about the potential effects of nuclear radiation following an atomic attack, the scientists at Vanderbilt fed the women “vitamin drinks” under the lie that the concoctions would be good for their unborn children.

After providing the drinks, the researchers tracked the movement of the radioactive isotopes through the body until it ended up in the placenta. Years later, between 1963 and 1964, researchers at Vanderbilt re-examined the cases and claimed that the experiment had not resulted in increased cancer risks for the patients. However, approximately seven children connected to the experiment died from some form of cancer, while many of the female subjects suffered hair and tooth loss, rashes, and cancer.

9. The Mustard Gas Experiments

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Throughout the 20th century, service members were frequently used as human guinea pigs for several different experiments. During World War II, the U.S. military carried out a series of secret experiments on its own soldiers and sailors. The goal of these experiments was to test the effects of mustard gas. During World War I, mustard gas had been a scourge that had taken the lives of thousands of Allied and Central Powers troops. Use of the chemical weapon was considered a war crime by many.

In 1943, the U.S. Navy asked several teenagers fresh out of boot camp if they’d be willing to participate in an undisclosed study. The project mostly took place at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. There, the naive volunteers discovered that they would be exposed to mustard gas. The U.S. Army conducted its own program, which included locking soldiers in wooden gas chambers while mustard gas was pumped inside. All told, 60,000 enlisted men partook in the experiment. Many of these men were chosen specifically because they were black.

Although declassified in 1993, many veterans who were exposed to mustard gas have not received their promised benefits from the VA.

8. The Milgram Experiment

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Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to test the limits of obedience. When the experiment commenced in the summer of 1961, many academics were interested in discovering the root of the so-called “authoritative personality.” Spurned on by Marxist cultural critics like Hannah Arendt (creator of the later “banality of evil” concept) as well as reports about the atrocities of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, psychologists like Milgram decided to test the moral strength of everyday people. Indeed, Milgram specifically cited the Nazis when he posed the question: “Could it be that (Adolf) Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?”

Following a newspaper advertisement requesting volunteers, Milgram began using Yale students as either “learners” or “teachers.” Furthermore, two subjects were divided into separate rooms. One was an actor, while the other was tasked with shocking the other person after every question they got wrong. The individuals could not see each other, but could hear each other. A minority of “teachers” quit the experiment when the believed that they were hurting the other person. Most continued to increase voltage when they were told that they would suffer no consequences for their actions. In the scenario, some “teachers” continued to shock the “learners” past their supposed deaths.

7. The Stanford Prison Experiment

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One of the most infamous experiments in American history began on August 17, 1971. In Palo Alto, California, home of Stanford University, several college-age males were picked up by police officers who accused them of violating Penal Codes 211 and 459 (armed robbery and burglary). The suspects were handled roughly, searched, and thrown into police cars with sirens wailing. The men were then booked and put into holding cells located in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford.

These “suspects” were the 24 volunteers for the experiment who had been selected based on their positive mental and physical health. With the flip of a coin, half of these men became prison guards, while the others were confined day and night to cells. According to popular belief, the men who were assigned to be prison guards began abusing and humiliating prisoners without instruction. In turn, the prisoners passively accepted their abuse with little protest. In truth, the prison guards acted in ways that had been predetermined by their scripted roles. Despite this, the experiment, which was supposed to last for two weeks, was terminated after just six days. The Stanford Prison Experiment is often held up as clear evidence that normal people can easily become tyrants.

6. Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

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In 1932, the historically black Tuskegee Institute began a partnership with the Public Health Service in order to see if they could combat high rates of syphilis among African Americans. The ultimate goal of the experiment was to chart the trajectory of syphilis in the human body.

The experiment included 600 male subjects, 399 with syphilis and 201 disease-free. None of these men consented to participating in the study, however. Researchers calmed their fears by simply telling them that they were designing a treatment for “bad blood.” The infected men were improperly treated and were allowed to waste away. Most received certain benefits, from free medical check-ups, free meals, to burial insurance, but few got better after the experiment. Furthermore, the study was only supposed to last for six months. It wound up lasting for forty years. Even after the introduction of penicillin in 1947, none of the subjects were treated with the possibly life-saving drug.

5. Eugenic Sterilization

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Before the Nazis made it a dirty word, eugenic science was supported by many American liberals and Progressives. Indeed, many Progressive reformers helped to push through sterilization laws under the auspices of treating inheritable diseases. In 1907, Indiana became the first state to legalize eugenic sterilization. During the 1920s, eugenic sterilization became more widely accepted all across the United States.

In several states, sterilizations were enacted to see if they could have any positive effect on crime reduction or the reduction of mental disabilities. Race also proved to be a factor, as several eugenic supporters believed that forced sterilizations could improve “genetic stock” through the elimination of “inferior” genes. In 1927, eugenic sterilization went before the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell. Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. ultimately ruled in favor of the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, a native of Charlottesville, Virginia who had been sterilized because she had given birth at seventeen following a rape, because “her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization.”

4. Human Experiments In North Korea

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The communist state of North Korea is more or less a great mystery. Most of what we know about the isolated nation comes from the reports given by civilian and military defectors. One defector, who was former member of the large North Korean Army, told Western reporters that the military frequently used children to test chemical and biological weapons. Specifically, Im Cheon-yong claimed that mentally handicapped children were targeted for these tests.

Elsewhere, word has leaked about the various camps maintained by the North Korean government, some of which are actually located in China and Russia. One such camp, known as Camp 22, is nominally a labor camp. However, according to survivors, the starving prisoners are often used for ghastly experiments. According to at least one source, Camp 22 contains 50,000 prisoners, including thousands of women and children. Most do not survive their stays at the camp, with many dying at the hands of openly abusive guards and army officers.

3. Soviet Super Soldiers

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Bolshevik Russia was an unimaginable hell for everyday people. Because of restricted access to the Russian archives, few Western scholars know the full extent of Russian suffering during the birth and early years of the Soviet Union. Lenin, the self-appointed savior of the peasants and working class, said “let the peasants starve” during the 1920s. As a result, food was stolen from Russia’s peasant majority, who were suspected of being “counter-revolutionary,” and given to the Red Army. Throughout the 1920s, a horrific famine forced many Russians to resort to cannibalism. A decade later, Joseph Stalin, with the help of pro-communist journalists from the West (Walter Duranty, for example) covered up the man-made famine that killed anywhere between two to seven million Ukrainians.

As can be seen, Soviet authorities were not averse to “cracking a few eggs.” During the 1920s, Stalin tapped the Academy of Science in Moscow in order to create a “living war machine.” The biologist Illya Ivanov decided that splicing ape DNA with human DNA would produce a Soviet super soldier. Using orangutan sperm and female subjects, Ivanov attempted to breed half-ape, half-human hybrids. “Woman G” was to be impregnated with orangutan sperm, but the ape died before the experiment could be completed. Eventually, Dr. Ivanov was purged by Stalin.

2. The Experiments of Unit 731 and Unit 100

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In 1925, the Empire of Japan created Unit 731 and Unit 100 in order to carry out chemical and biological experiments on human subjects. During World War II, these secretive units were led by Lieutenant-General Ishii Shiro, an army medical officer and a microbiologist with a degree from Kyoto Imperial University. Along with 3,000 researchers, the Japanese Army deployed Unit 731 and Unit 100 to occupied China, were the groups set up headquarters in the northern city of Harbin.

Although the full extent of the experiments carried out by these units is not known, reports from eyewitnesses and survivors paint a very gruesome picture. The units specialized in vivisection experiments, most of which were carried out on non-Japanese subjects, including Koreans, Chinese, and Russian civilians. Some of these subjects were pregnant women; others were still alive when the operations began.

Gathering evidence points out that as many as 10,000 people may have been subjected to these experiments. Furthermore, newly released evidence clearly shows that Unit 731 and Unit 100 tortured their subjects and submitted captured Allied soldiers and airmen to such horrific experiences as pressure chambers, being buried alive, and having air injected into their veins.

1. The Experiments of Josef Mengele

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Nicknamed the “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele was an SS officer who used the Nazi concentration and death camps to perform widespread human experiments. Mengele performed most of his horrible experiments at the infamous death camp Auschwitz in occupied Poland.

Some of Dr. Mengele’s experiments included subjecting prisoners to high pressure and high altitude. Inside of these chambers, where Mengele and others oscillated low pressure with high pressure, many subjects died or suffered debilitating physical injuries. Others were forced to endure injuries suffered from incendiary devices full of phosphorous. Many people died so that the Nazis could find out the usefulness of certain chemical weapons. Along with phosphorous, Mengele also subjected his patients to mustard gas, freezing water, and malaria injections.

Most infamous of all, Mengele had a fascination with twins. As such, twins who arrived at Auschwitz were immediately sent to Dr. Mengele for experimentation. Some twins had their organs removed without being put under anesthesia first. If one twin died, then the other was killed. One survivor recalled that she and her sister were locked in separate boxes and given painful injections in their backs. The goal there was to see if pain and isolation could change eye color.

Dr. Mengele managed to survive the war and died in Brazil in 1979.

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