Medical progress saves lives, but sometimes scientists let the hope of a breakthrough get in the way of ethics. Recently, the United States government issued a formal apology to Guatemala for experiments done there in the 1940s that involved infecting prisoners and mental patients 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.
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.
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 The experiment did not induce stuttering, but it did make formerly normal children anxious, withdrawn and silent.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.