Credit: National Archives
Medical progress saves lives, but sometimes scientists let the hope
of a breakthrough get in the way of ethics. For instance, the U.S. government issued a formal apology to Guatemala for experiments done there in the 1940s that involved infecting prisoners and individuals with mental illnesses 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
eight of the worst experiments on human subjects in history.
Credit: Richard Lee/NY Daily News via Getty Images
In the name of science, or more specifically getting to the bottom of the nature-versus-nurture question, psychologists ran a secret experiment in the 1960s and 1970s in which they separated twins and triplets from each other and adopted them out as singlets. The experiment, said to have been partly funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, came to light when three identical triplet brothers accidentally found each other in 1980. They had no idea they had siblings.
”How can you do this with little children? How can you do this to a little baby, innocent children being torn apart at birth?” asked Robert Shafran, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel in 1997.
His brother, David Kellman, felt the same anger: ”We were robbed of 20 years together,” said Kellman in the Orlando Sentinel article. Their brother, Edward Galland committed suicide in 1995 at his home in Maplewood, New Jersey, leaving behind a wife and daughter.
The child psychiatrists who headed up the study — Peter Neubauer and Viola Bernard — showed no remorse, according to news reports, going as far as saying they thought they were doing something good for the kids, separating them so they could develop their individual personalities, said Bernard, who was also a consultant for the Louise Wise adoption agency.
As for what Neubauer learned from his secret “evil” experiment, that’s anyone’s guess, as the results of the controversial study are being stored in an archive at Yale University, and they can’t be unsealed until 2066, NPR reported in 2007.
Director Tim Wardle chronicled the lives of the triplets in the film “Three Identical Strangers,” which debuted at Sundance 2018.
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 — 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
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.
The Tuskegee study
The most famous lapse in medical ethics in the United States lasted
for 40 years. In 1932, according to the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, the U.S. Public Health Service launched a study on the
health effects of untreated syphilis. Unfortunately for the unwitting
participants, this study involved, well, not treating syphilis.
The researchers tracked the progression of the disease in 399 black
men in Alabama (201 healthy men were also followed), telling them they
were being treated for “bad blood.” In fact, the men never got adequate
treatment, even in 1947 when penicillin became the drug of choice to
treat syphilis. It wasn’t until a 1972 newspaper article exposed the
study to the public eye that officials shut it down.
Stanford Prison Experiment
In 1971, Philip Zimbardo, now professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, set out to test the “nature of human nature,” to answer questions such as “What happens when you put good people in evil situations?” How he went about answering his human nature questions was and is thought by many to have been less than ethical. He set up a prison and paid college students to play guards and prisoners, who inevitably seemed to transform into abusive guards and hysterical prisoners. The two-week experiment was shut down after just six days because things turned chaotic fast. “In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress,” Zimbardo writes on his website.
The guards, pretty much from the get-go, treated the prisoners awfully, humiliating them by stripping them naked and spraying their bodies with delousing chemicals and generally harassing and intimidating them.
Turns out, according to a report on Medium, a news publication, in June 2018, the guards didn’t become aggressive on their own — Zimbardo encouraged the abusive behavior — and some of the prisoners faked their emotional breakdowns. For instance, Douglas Korpi, a volunteer prisoner said that he faked a meltdown to get released early so he could study for an exam.
Even so, the Stanford Prison Experiment has been the basis of psychologists’ and even historians’ understanding of how even healthy people can become so evil when placed in certain situations.