A Biologist Provides a Frightening Tour of The 20th Century's Most Evil Science Experiments on Human Beings

Roundup: Talking About History

Farhad Manjoo, writing in Salon (Jan. 2004):

In 1932, the United States Public Health Service alerted hundreds of poor black men in Macon County, Ala., to a new treatment for"bad blood," a term locals used to refer to a wide range of sexually transmitted diseases. The"special treatment," the government said, would be offered by doctors at the Tuskegee Institute, the Alabama college founded by Booker T. Washington; the men would be treated for free as long as they allowed doctors to observe their condition.

Almost 400 men responded, and when they arrived at Tuskegee, doctors from around the country descended on the school to monitor them. But the men who checked in to Tuskegee for salvation from bad blood were not offered any new medicine there. Instead, doctors administered aspirin and an"iron tonic" placebo and, over four decades of annual visits, watched the men descend to grisly deaths from a well-known disease -- syphilis -- that the government knew could easily and effectively be treated with penicillin.

Since 1972, when details of the program were first uncovered in the press, the"Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male," as the government called it, has come to stand as a monument for all that can go wrong in science -- a horror committed not only by a racist government but also by doctors sworn to the highest ethical conduct. The Tuskegee study might seem to most of us like an aberration, a product of a place and time particularly lacking in ethics. The scientists who organized the program may have been mad, but surely all scientists aren't so, you might think.

While that's a sensible way to look at the world, Andrew Goliszek, a biologist at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, cautions that it's not always wise to give science the benefit of the doubt. In his new book,"In the Name of Science: A History of Secret Programs, Medical Research, and Human Experimentation," Goliszek recounts dozens of unethical and sometimes ghastly experiments conducted on humans, many much worse than what occurred at Tuskegee. Some of these -- like the crimes of Dr. Josef Mengele, the"Angel of Death" who presided over prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp -- are infamous; others, such as the CIA's experiments with LSD, the Defense Department's Cold War-era radiological experiments on unsuspecting soldiers or the Japanese government's germ-warfare program of World War II, have been nearly forgotten by history.

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Elaine - 1/18/2004

We don't learn from history. The 21st century's first evil scientific experiments are the extraction of stem cells from human embryo's. Scientist's don't give a hoot about moral or ethical concerns when they want to experiment.

I wonder how many other evil scientific experiments this century will perform and not call them evil.

Bernard J. Wolfe, Jr. - 1/17/2004

The greatest danger to mankind is denial and rationalization that such activities cannot occur in the future even when we have clear evidence that it has been a reccurring danger. We have to be on aware and take steps to keep such activities to a minimum.

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Judith Ronat - 1/16/2004

Farhad Manjoo writes that the Tuskegee experiments began in 1932 and "that the government knew could easily and effectively be treated with penicillin." But penicillen was in very limited use only a decade later, and in general use later still. That does not condone the experiments, but treatment in 1932 was relatively ineffective.