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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cross the line, into Wikipedia’s list of unethical experiments

Illustration for article titled Cross the line, into Wikipedia’s list of unethical experiments
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Unethical human experimentation in the United States

What it’s about: Humanity’s earliest medical procedures—trepanning, leeching, and other forms of bloodletting—are infamous for doing more harm than good. Early doctors operated from flawed conventional wisdom, and few realized that they were often accidentally making their patients worse. Fortunately, by the late 19th century, we had advanced as a society, to the point where doctors made their patients worse on purpose. In the name of advancing medical science, doctors have experimented on human subjects—often unwilling or unknowing ones, and nearly always poor and powerless. This practice has taken place all over the world, but Wikipedia has devoted a page just to unethical experiments here in the good ol’ U.S.A.


Strangest fact: Of the many horrific experiments that have been performed over the years, the most bizarre has to be those of Dr. Leo Stanley, chief surgeon of San Quentin Prison for the first half of the 20th century. Between 1913 and 1951, Stanley performed experiments on hundreds of prisoners, many involving testicular implants. When a prisoner was executed, the good doctor would remove his testicles, and implant them into a living subject. He also implanted animal testicles into prisoners, including those of rams, goats, and boars. (No word as to whether they kept their original junk as well, or whether the body accepted any of the transplants). Stanley believed his experiments would rejuvenate old men (by giving them the gonads of a younger, more virile man and/or goat). All we can say is, we’re glad Johnny Cash didn’t make it to San Quentin until 1969.

Biggest controversy: Frankly, it would be hard to pick which of these is the least controversial, as everything on the page is fairly shocking. The best known is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which the U.S. Public Health Service offered to treat 400 impoverished black males who showed signs of syphilis, but researchers neither told the men their diagnosis, nor attempted to treat the disease—instead simply studying the disease’s progress. Even after penicillin was recognized as an effective treatment, the doctors not only didn’t treat the subjects, they actively prevented them from receiving treatment elsewhere so they could continue their research. The study went on for 40 years—at which point only 74 of the original 400 were still alive—and was only shut down because of widespread outcry when the program’s existence was made public.

Thing we were happiest to learn: For the first time, there is nothing we were happy to learn. While it would have been nice to say, “at least this is all in the past,” it isn’t. As recently as the 2000s, Northfield Labs gave patients transfusions of artificial blood without informing them (the fake blood led to higher risk of heart attack). The medical profession was also involved in the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding and sleep deprivation, partly to measure the effects of the torture procedures, but also “to provide legal cover for torture.” Also, in 2010, U.S. defense contractor Raytheon announced they were partnering with a California jail to use prisoners as test subjects for a weapons system that “fires an invisible heat beam capable of causing unbearable pain.” And while most of these experiments were well-guarded secrets that were discovered after the fact, the unbearable-pain-heat-ray is something Raytheon announced.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: While doctors performing unethical experiments most often target helpless members of society—the poor and uneducated, the mentally handicapped, prisoners, and (before the Civil War) slaves—some have targeted the most helpless people of all: babies. The grisliest were performed by J. Marion Sims, often referred to as “the father of gynecology,” because that reads better than “that guy who operated on slaves without anesthesia just because he was curious.” In one experiment examining the causes of lockjaw in infants, he moved babies’ not-yet-joined skull bones around with a shoemaker’s awl. During a widespread effort in the 1940s and ’50s to test the effects of radiation on unassuming Americans, the U.S. government also injected pregnant women and babies with radioactive chemicals.

Also noteworthy: In the 1950s, the CIA was doing so much psychological torture that they had to open a separate agency to keep track of it all. MKULTRA was the code name for a project corralling all of the CIA’s attempts at developing an effective brainwashing technique. MKULTRA was set up after CIA director Allen Dulles complained about not having enough “human guinea pigs to try these extraordinary techniques.” (This is the same guy Washington, D.C. named their airport after.) The CIA got off to a great start, ethics-wise, by recruiting former Nazi scientists familiar with torture and brainwashing, some of whom had already been prosecuted at Nuremberg. Their main goal was to find a drug that could be used either as a truth serum, or a mind-control agent. To that end, the agency administered psychotropic drugs—usually LSD—to people without their knowledge. This included the usual prisoners, mental patients, and other people unable to fight back, but also included CIA employees, soldiers, and members of the general public. Notable victims of MKULTRA’s experiments include Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter (each of whom started taking LSD recreationally only after volunteering for an MKULTRA experiment), Whitey Bulger (who volunteered for testing while at Leavenworth in the ’60s), and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who, as a Harvard undergrad, was subjected to experiments meant to measure people’s reactions to extreme stress, which researchers said caused “vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive attacks.” I supposed we’ll never know whether Kaczynski’s views towards universities and the government were affected in any way. In the end, the CIA never developed mind control, or at least that’s what the chip in my brain is instructing me to tell you.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Haven’t had your fill of moral outrage? Check out the School Of The Americas, a training camp set up by the U.S. Defense Department to train Latin American guerrilla groups to fight communism. Besides passing on the CIA’s questionable brainwashing techniques, SOA graduates were infamous for committing human rights abuses (second only to Wellesley grads). The school’s philosophy was best summed up by its former director of instruction, Major Joseph Blair, in John Pilger’s documentary The War On Democracy: “If you want information you use physical abuse, you use false imprisonment, you use threats to family members, you use virtually any method necessary to get what you want… [including torture] and killing.” Which reminds me, the new season of 24 just started.

Further down the wormhole: While the government was a frequent culprit in unethical experiments, big business was often a willing participant. One such company was Quaker Oats, which teamed up with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to feed radioactive oatmeal to 73 mentally handicapped children between 1946 and 1953, in order to track nutrients as they passed through the digestive tract. The children were told by hospital staff they were joining a “science club.” Quaker’s page leads to an interesting detour: on two occasions, the company actually gave away land as a cereal-box prize. But that link is more or less a dead end. Pulling us deeper into Wikipedia’s hypnotic hold is Saul Bass, the legendary graphic artist who designed Quaker’s black-and-white logo (the current color version is still based on his design). Bass also designed AT&T’s logo after the breakup of the Bell system, the best-known monopoly breakup in U.S. history. That page leads to A&T Technologies, and its crown jewel, the mythical Bell Labs, which we’ll visit next week.


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