Experiments involving the use of people will always remain a controversial topic. On one hand, they allow us to obtain more information about the human body that we can put to good use in the future. On the other hand, we have a whole slew of ethical issues to consider. The best that we can do as civilized human beings is to balance the two. Ideally, we should conduct experiments while bringing the least possible harm to the individual. This list shows the exact opposite of that concept. We can only imagine the pain these people went through as they were treated like nothing more than guinea pigs by those who liked to play God.
10 Surgery To Treat Insanity
Dr. Henry Cotton believed that localized infections were the root causes of insanity. After he became the head of an insane asylum in Trenton in 1907, he began implementing a procedure he dubbed “surgical bacteriology.” During that time, Cotton and his team performed thousands of surgical operations on patients, often without their consent. First, they extracted teeth and tonsils; if that wasn’t enough, they would go deeper and remove the internal organs which they believed were causing the problems. He believed in his methods so much that he even performed them on himself and his family. He extracted teeth from himself, his wife, and his two sons (one of whom also had part of his colon removed).
Cotton claimed that his treatments had a high rate of curing patients, and that claim soon became a lightning rod for critics who found his work appalling. In one instance, he justified the deaths of 49 patients from the colectomies and stated that they were already suffering from “end-stage psychosis” prior to the operations. An independent investigation later revealed that Cotton greatly exaggerated the results. After his death in 1933, the surgeries at the asylum ceased and Cotton’s viewpoints faded into obscurity. To his credit, critics ruled that he really was sincere in his efforts to cure his patients, albeit in an insane, deluded way.
9 Vaginal Surgery Without Anesthesia
J. Marion Sims, revered by many as a pioneer in the field of American gynecology, conducted an extensive surgical study on several female African-American slaves during the 1840s. The study, which spanned three years, focused on a surgical cure for vesicovaginal fistula, a condition that abnormally connects the bladder to the vagina. But here’s the kicker—he performed the surgeries without anesthesia. One subject, a woman named Anarcha, endured a whopping 30 operations before Sims finally got it right.
This wasn’t the only horrifying study that Sims performed. Among other insanities that we’ve discussed before, he also tried to cure the infants of slaves suffering from trismus (a condition similar to lockjaw in tetanus) using a shoemaker’s awl to pry their cranial bones into alignment.
8 Accidental Bubonic Plague
Richard Strong, a doctor and head of the Biological Laboratory of the Philippines Bureau of Science, performed several inoculations on inmates at a Manila prison in an attempt to find the perfect cholera vaccine. In one such experiment in 1906, he mistakenly gave the bubonic plague to the inmates instead of the cholera vaccine, which resulted in the deaths of 13 subjects. A government investigation into the incident later corroborated the findings and stated that “a plague serum was probably substituted for a bottle of cholera serum.”
Depressed by the debacle, Strong laid low for awhile, only to resurface six years later for another series of inoculations on the inmates—this time with the disease Beriberi. Some of the participants died, while those who survived were compensated with nothing more than a few packs of cigarettes. Strong’s notorious experiments were such a catastrophe that they were later cited by Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials to justify their own horrific research.
7 Slaves Doused With Boiling Water
In what could more accurately be described as torture than treatment, Dr. Walter Jones recommended boiling water as a cure for typhoid pneumonia during the 1840s. He tested his treatment on numerous slaves afflicted with the disease over the course of several months. Jones described in great detail how one patient, a sickly 25-year-old man, was stripped naked and made to lie down on the ground on his stomach. At this point, Jones poured five gallons of boiling water over the patient’s back.
However, that wasn’t the end of the poor man’s suffering—White stated that the treatment should be repeated every four hours, which he rationalized would be sufficient for “re-establishing the capillary circulation.” Jones later claimed that his treatment cured many patients, an assertion that was never independently verified. No surprise there.
6 Electric Current Applied Directly To The Brain
While the idea of shocking someone sounds painful by itself, one man—a Cincinnati physician named Dr. Roberts Bartholow—took it to the next level when he sent an electric current straight into the brain of one of his patients. In 1847, Bartholow was treating a patient named Mary Rafferty who was suffering from an ulcer in the skull. The ulcer had eaten its way so far through the bone that her brain had became visible.
With her permission, Bartholow inserted electrodes directly into her brain and applied varying currents to observe her reactions. He repeated his experiment eight times over a four-day period. Initially, Rafferty seemed fine; however, she became greatly agitated during the later stages of the tests and soon went into a coma. Shortly afterward, she died.
The resulting backlash was so great that Bartholow had to leave his job and continue his work elsewhere. He later settled in Philadelphia and attained a very high teaching position at Jefferson Medical College, proving that even mad scientists can catch the occasional break.
5 Testicle Transplants
Leo Stanley, the chief physician at San Quentin prison from 1913 to 1951, had a crazy theory: He believed that males who committed crimes had low levels of testosterone and, according to him, raising testosterone levels in inmates would reduce criminal behavior.
To test this notion, Stanley conducted a series of bizarre operations in which he surgically transplanted the testicles of newly executed criminals into still-living prisoners. Due to a lack of available human testicles (on average, only three executions took place inside the prison annually), Quentin soon turned to using various animal testicles that he would process into a liquid and inject into the prisoners’ skin.
By 1922, Stanley claimed that he had performed the operations on more than 600 inmates. He also claimed that his operations were successful; in one particular case he described how a senile Caucasian inmate became sprightly and energetic after being given the testicles of an executed African-American man.
4 Shock Therapy And LSD For Kids
Lauretta Bender is perhaps best known for devising the Bender-Gestalt test—a psychological test that assesses a child’s motor and cognitive abilities. However, Bender also engaged in several slightly more controversial studies. As psychiatrist of the Bellevue Hospital during the 1940s, Bender administered daily shocks to 98 pediatric patients in an effort to cure them of a condition she coined “childhood schizophrenia.”
She reported that the shocks were hugely successful, and that only a small number of the children went into relapse. As if the shock treatment wasn’t enough, Bender also gave the children adult-sized doses of mind-bending drugs such as LSD and psilocybin (the chemical in hallucinogenic mushrooms), often for weeks at a time. And while it was never officially proven, there have been allegations that she got her funds from the notorious CIA program MK-ULTRA.
3 The Guatemala Syphilis Experiment
In 2010, a highly unethical syphilis experiment came to light when a professor who was studying the infamous Tuskegee Study discovered that the same health organization also performed a similar experiment in Guatemala. This revelation spurred the White House to form an investigation committee, which later found that government-sponsored researchers intentionally infected 1,300 Guatemalans with syphilis in 1946.
The study, which lasted two years, aimed to find out if penicillin could be an effective treatment once a patient was already infected. To do that, the researchers paid prostitutes to spread the disease to other people—mostly soldiers, inmates, and psychiatric patients—who did not know they were being infected with syphilis. A total of 83 people died from the experiment. These ghastly findings prompted President Obama to personally apologize to the Guatemalan president and people.
2 Skin-Hardening Experiments
Dermatologist Albert Kligman ran a very comprehensive experimental program on inmates of Holmesburg Prison during the 1960s. In one such experiment, the US Army sponsored a study that focused on finding ways to harden the skin. Theoretically, the hardened skin could protect the soldiers from chemical irritants while in combat zones. Kligman applied various chemical-filled creams and agents to the inmates, but the only noticeable outcome was permanent scarring and a good deal of pain.
Pharmaceutical companies also paid Kligman to use his prisoners as guinea pigs to test their products. While the subjects were paid to participate, they were not fully informed of the experiments’ objectives and the potentially adverse effects that could result from them. Many of the chemical concoctions ended up causing the skin to blister and burn. Needless to say, Kligman displayed ruthless, mechanical efficiency in dealing with the inmates during his tenure at the prison. In fact, after he arrived at the prison for the first time, he remarked that “all I saw before me were acres of skin.”
Eventually, public uproar and a subsequent investigation forced Kligman to shut down his operations and destroy all the information from the experiments. Sadly, the former test subjects were never compensated, while Kligman later became rich by inventing Retin-A, the “drug of choice” against acne. Sometimes life just doesn’t play fair.
1 Experimental Spinal Taps On Children
While lumbar punctures—sometimes referred to as spinal taps—are often a necessary procedure, especially for neurological and spinal disorders, we can all agree that sticking a giant needle into someone’s spine is a recipe for excruciating pain. Yet, in 1896, a pediatrician named Arthur Wentworth decided to test the obvious. During an experimental spinal tap on a young girl, Wentworth noted how the patient cringed in pain during the procedure. Wentworth suspected that the operation was painful (it was believed to be painless at the time) but was not totally convinced. So he performed it again—on 29 infants and toddlers.
He eventually reached the conclusion that although temporarily painful, the procedure was very useful in helping diagnose illnesses. Wentworth’s findings received mixed reviews from his colleagues—some praised them while one critic denounced them as nothing more than “human vivisection.” Growing public indignation over the experiments later forced Wentworth to leave his teaching job at Harvard Medical School.