5 Times People Didn't Know Their Bodies Were Science Experiments

These researchers didn't give AF about "informed consent".


As much as science is in dire need of our support, we’re also obligated to critique research as it happens. Over the course of scientific history, the freewheeling pursuit of knowledge has led to numerous moral infractions, often to the detriment of human beings. While the Nuremberg Code, established after the abuses conducted by Nazi doctors became public, states that “the voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential,” American researchers haven’t always respected this code of ethics, as these five totally immoral scientific experiments illustrate.

The Guatemala Syphilis Experiment

In 2010, news broke that American scientists purposely infected Guatemalan prisoners, patients from a mental hospital, and orphans with gonorrhea and syphilis between 1946 to 1948. This experiment was done without the knowledge or consent of the study subjects, who were forced into participation.

The experiment was meant to test the effectiveness of penicillin. During one part of the study, prostitutes with syphilis were paid to sleep with the male participants — but if that didn’t cause infection, then the related bacteria was poured onto scrapes in their faces, arms, and penises. Men who did contract the disease were given antibiotics. However, according to Susan Reverby, Ph.D., the Wellesley College academic whose research uncovered these events, whether the men were actually cured by the antibiotics is not clear. An overall 1,500 Guatemalans are believed to have been affected by this experiment.

Henrietta Lacks

HeLa cells under a custom laser scanning microscope.

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For decades, Henrietta Lacks’ cells were far more well known than she was. Her cells, known now as HeLa cells, were collected in 1951 without her consent from a cancerous tumor she received treatment for at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Lacks died, but her cells lived on after being isolated by Dr. George Otto, thus becoming the first cells to live and continue multiplying outside of the human body. Since then, her cells have been reproduced hundreds of times and have become an integral part of medical research. Without HeLa cells, for example, there would be no polio vaccine.

Her story is now more widely known because of a book and HBO film about her life, both titled the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which bring attention to the struggles of her family as well as juxtapose their financial strife against the mass profit pharmaceutical companies have made off of her cells. While Lacks’ descendants probably never received profits from the sales of her cells (a tube of her cells are typically sold for $260), the National Institute of Health did announce in 2013 that scientists must apply to use her genome data. Her biographer, Rebecca Skloot, also established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which provides financial assistance to individuals and families of those individuals who have “made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions.”

The Tuskegee Syphilis Studies

A doctor drawing blood from a patient as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

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The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male began in 1932 and was presented a study to “record the natural history of syphilis in hopes of justifying treatment programs for blacks,” according to a CDC report. Co-run by the Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute, the program was supposed to last six months and involved 399 black men with syphilis and 201 without.

Instead, the research lasted for 40 years and the men studied never received actual treatment for syphilis. The men, who never gave their informed consent to participate in the study, were never told the actual purpose of the study and instead told they were being treated for “bad blood,” a nonscientific term that was broadly associated with a combination of ailments. In 1947, penicillin emerged as an effective treatment for syphilis, but it was not offered to the infected men that took part in the study. Instead, they were offered free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance.

Associated Press reporter Jean Heller broke the story in 1972, and the country was accordingly appalled. Many of the participants had died over the course of the study, and their wives and children were infected without their knowledge. A class-action lawsuit on the behalf of the study participants and their families was filed, and in 1974 a $10-million settlement that included lifetime medical benefits for anyone affected by this study was reached with the U.S. government.

Human Radiation Experiments

A mockup of the "Fat Man" nuclear device.

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In 1995, President Bill Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the U.S. for the government-funded radiation experiments conducted on humans for decades after World War II. The investigative reporting of Eileen Welsome of the Albuquerque Tribune led to the Openness Initiative, an effort to examine the ethics of over 4,000 experiments kept on record by several U.S. government departments, including the Department of Defense and NASA.

Ruth Faden of Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics chaired the committee investigating these experiments, and summed up the human rights abuses in a 1995 televised announcement:

“We have found that wrongs were indeed committed. Both with experiments involving radiation, and with the intentional releases of radiation into the environment. . .Patients were used as subjects of experiments without their knowledge or consent. Information was withheld from affected communities, and from the public. Secrets were kept, to protect the government from embarrassment and legal liability.”

In the experiments, scientists exposed subjects to uranium, plutonium, americium, and other radioactive substances to determine what they did to the human body. These experiments were justified by arguing that it was in the national interest to know how much radiation a body could stand because of the imminent nuclear threat the Cold War posed. But that doesn’t excuse the way these experiments were conducted, which was shady as hell: Many of them included exposing predominantly poor and black cancer patients to high radiation levels while telling them they were receiving “treatment.” In another experiment, car accident victims were injected with plutonium.

Project MK Ultra

An approval of the MK-Ultra project.

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Despite its fantastical name, Project MK-Ultra was a lot more than just a passing reference in Stranger Things. Between 1953 and 1964, the CIA ran more than 130 mind-control experiments on unsuspecting participants, many of whom were emotionally crippled by the experience. These experiments remained a secret until over a decade later they ended, when a 1977 joint hearing organized by the Select Committee on Intelligence made them public.

“The Deputy Director of the CIA revealed that over 30 universities and institutions were involved in an ‘extensive testing and experimentation’ program which included covert drug tests on unwitting citizens at all social levels, high, and low, native Americans, and foreign,” then-Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye said during the hearing. “Several of these tests involved the administration of LSD to unwitting subjects in social situations. The Agency itself acknowledged that these tests made little scientific sense.”

Some of these “unwitting subjects” included heroin addicts who were told that if they took part in the LSD experiments they would get a reward, which was more heroin. What they didn’t know was that they were a part of government-sponsored studies designed to determine how to effectively interrogate people through mind control. We’ll likely never know the full extent of the experiment: then-CIA Director Richard Helms ordered the destruction of most of the records in 1973.

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