Skip to main content

Shameful: U.S. Gov't Experimented on Disabled & Prisoners

A presidential bioethics commission will meet in Washington, D.C. this week to discuss a shameful chapter in American history -- the medical experiments by U.S. government doctors on disabled people and prison inmates.

The experiments occurred from the 1940s-1960s. Most of the studies were not reported by the media, while others were reported as promising new treatments for disease, ignoring how the developments were made.

The Associated Press reviewed old press clippings and medical journals and found 40 such studies, complete with pictures.

Image placeholder title

Prison 'volunteers': In this 1966 picture, medical administrator Solomon McBride questions a clearly marked subject at Holmesburg Prison, Philadelphia. Questions have been rasied about whether inmates were coerced

Image placeholder title

Infect and observe: An army doctor watches as malaria-carrying mosquitoes bite the stomach of inmate Richard Knickerbockers, serving 10 to 14 years, in Stateville in 1945

The experiments included giving hepatitis to mental patients in Connecticut, squirting a pandemic flu virus up the noses of prisoners in Maryland, and injecting cancer cells into chronically ill people at a New York hospital.

Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics, said, "'When you give somebody a disease, even by the standards of their time, you really cross the key ethical norm of the profession."

However, at the time many prominent researchers felt it was legitimate to experiment on people who did not have full rights in society -- people like prisoners, mental patients or the poor blacks.

The most famous, already-made-public incident involving such experiments was the Tuskegee syphilis study, where U.S. health officials tracked 600 black men in Alabama who already had syphilis, but didn't give them adequate treatment even after penicillin became available.

According to the AP, here are just a few of the cases it found:

-- A federally funded study begun in 1942 injected experimental flu vaccine in male patients at a state insane asylum in Ypsilanti, Michigan, then exposed them to flu several months later. Some of the men weren't able to describe their symptoms, raising serious questions about how well they understood what was being done to them.

-- In federally funded studies in the 1940s, noted researcher Dr. W. Paul Havens Jnr exposed men to hepatitis in a series of experiments, including one using patients from mental institutions in Middletown and Norwich, Connecticut.

-- Researchers in the mid-1940s studied the transmission of a deadly stomach bug by having young men swallow unfiltered fecal matter. The study was conducted at the New York State Vocational Institution, a reformatory prison in West Coxsackie. The point was to see how well the disease spread through ingestion.

-- A University of Minnesota study in the late 1940s injected 11 public service employee volunteers with malaria, then starved them for five days. Some were also subjected to hard labor. Then they were treated for malarial fevers with quinine sulfate.

-- For a study in 1957, when the Asian flu pandemic was spreading, federal researchers sprayed the virus in the noses of 23 inmates at Patuxent prison in Jessup, Md., to compare their reactions to those of 32 virus-exposed inmates who had been given a new vaccine.

-- Government researchers in the 1950s tried to infect about two dozen volunteering prison inmates with gonorrhea using two different methods in an experiment at a federal prison in Atlanta. But the researchers noted their methods weren't comparable to how men normally got infected -- by having sex with an infected partner. Too late for the men they had already infected.


Popular Video