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U.S. experimented on disabled citizens and prison inmates

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Prison 'volunteers': In this 1966 picture, medical administrator Solomon McBride questions a clearly marked subject at Holmesburg Prison, Philadelphia. Questions have been rasied about whether inmates were coerced.

Pictures have emerged providing the shocking proof that U.S. government doctors once experimented on disabled American citizens and prison inmates.

Such experiments included giving hepatitis to mental patients in Connecticut, squirting a pandemic flu virus up the noses of prisoners in Maryland, and injecting cancer cells into chronically ill people at a New York hospital.

Much of this horrific history is 40 to 80 years old, but it is the backdrop for a meeting in Washington this week by a presidential bioethics commission.

The meeting was triggered by the government’s apology last year for federal doctors infecting prisoners and mental patients in Guatemala with syphilis 65 years ago.

U.S. officials also acknowledged there had been dozens of similar experiments in America – studies that often involved making healthy people sick.

A review by the Associated Press of medical journal reports and decades-old press clippings found more than 40 such studies.

At best, these were a search for lifesaving treatments – at worst, some amounted to curiosity-satisfying experiments that hurt people but provided no useful results.

Captive guinea pigs: In 1945, army doctors exposed inmates to malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the malaria ward at Stateville Penitentiary in Crest Hill, Illinois. Prisoners were enlisted to help the war effort.

It echoes the deadly and meritless experiments conducted on Jewish concentration camp detainees at the hands of Nazi doctors.

And it will undoubtedly be compared to the Tuskegee syphilis study, where U.S. health officials tracked 600 black men in Alabama who already had syphilis – but didn’t give them adequate treatment even after penicillin became available.

Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, said: ‘When you give somebody a disease – even by the standards of their time – you really cross the key ethical norm of the profession.’

Most of the recently revealed studies, from the 1940s to the 1960s, apparently were never covered by news media. Others were reported at the time but the focus was on the promise of enduring new cures, while glossing over how test subjects were treated.

Infect and observe: An army doctor watches as malaria-carrying mosquitoes bite the stomach of inmate Richard Knickerbockers, serving 10 to 14 years, in Stateville in 1945.

Many prominent researchers felt it was legitimate to experiment on people who did not have full rights in society – people like prisoners, mental patients or the poor blacks.

Laura Stark, a Wesleyan University assistant professor of science in society – who is writing a book about past federal medical experiments – said: ‘There was definitely a sense – that we don’t have today – that sacrifice for the nation was important.’

Though people in the studies were usually described as volunteers, historians and ethicists have questioned how well these people understood what was to be done to them and why, or whether they were coerced.

Prisoners have long been victimised for the sake of science. In 1915, the U.S. government’s Dr Joseph Goldberger – today remembered as a public health hero – recruited Mississippi inmates to go on special rations to prove his theory that the painful illness pellagra was caused by a dietary deficiency (The men were offered pardons for their participation).

But studies using prisoners were uncommon in the first few decades of the 20th century, and were usually performed by researchers considered eccentric even by the standards of the day.

One was Dr LL Stanley, resident physician at San Quentin prison in California, who around 1920 attempted to treat older, ‘devitalized men’ by implanting in them testicles from livestock and from recently executed convicts.

Newspapers wrote about Stanley’s experiments, but the lack of outrage is striking.

One long-winded but otherwise cheery 1919 report in the Washington Post began: ‘Enter San Quentin penitentiary in the role of the Fountain of Youth – an institution where the years are made to roll back for men of failing mentality and vitality and where the spring is restored to the step, wit to the brain, vigor to the muscles and ambition to the spirit. All this has been done, is being done… by a surgeon with a scalpel.’

Around the time of World War II, prisoners were enlisted to help the war effort by taking part in studies that could help the troops. One was a series of malaria studies at Stateville Penitentiary in Illinois was designed to test antimalarial drugs that could help soldiers fighting in the Pacific.

It was at about this time that prosecution of Nazi doctors in 1947 led to the Nuremberg Code, a set of international rules to protect human test subjects. Many U.S. doctors essentially ignored them, arguing that they applied to Nazi atrocities – not to American medicine.

The late 1940s and 1950s saw huge growth in the U.S. pharmaceutical and health care industries, accompanied by a boom in prisoner experiments funded by both the government and corporations.

By the 1960s, at least half the states allowed prisoners to be used as medical guinea pigs.

But two studies in the 1960s proved to be turning points in the public’s attitude toward the way test subjects were treated.

The first came to light in 1963. Researchers injected cancer cells into 19 old and debilitated patients at a Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital in the New York borough of Brooklyn – to see if their bodies would reject them.

The hospital director said the patients were not told they were being injected with cancer cells because there was no need – the cells were deemed harmless.

But the experiment upset a lawyer named William Hyman, who sat on the hospital’s board of directors.

The state investigated, and the hospital ultimately said any such experiments would require the patient’s written consent.

At nearby Staten Island, from 1963 to 1966, a controversial medical study was conducted at the Willowbrook State School for children with mental retardation.

The children were intentionally given hepatitis orally and by injection to see if they could then be cured with gamma globulin.

Those two studies – along with the Tuskegee experiment revealed in 1972 – proved to be a ‘unholy trinity’ that sparked extensive and critical media coverage and public disgust, said Susan Reverby, the Wellesley College historian who first discovered records of the syphilis study in Guatemala.

By the early 1970s, even experiments involving prisoners were considered scandalous. In widely covered congressional hearings in 1973, pharmaceutical industry officials acknowledged they were using prisoners for testing because they were cheaper than chimpanzees.

Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia made extensive use of inmates for medical experiments. Some of the victims are still around to talk about it.

Edward Anthony, featured in a book about the studies, says he agreed to have a layer of skin peeled off his back, which was coated with searing chemicals to test a drug. He did that for money to buy cigarettes in prison.

He spoke of his reaction to the experiment, saying: ‘I said “Oh my God, my back is on fire! Take this … off me”.’

Mr Anthony recalled the beginning of weeks of intense itching and agonising pain.

The government responded with reforms. Among them: The U.S. Bureau of Prisons in the mid-1970s effectively excluded all research by drug companies and other outside agencies within federal prisons.

Criminal experiments: Experiments by Dr Josef Mengele (second left) and others like him were internationally condemned as war crimes for their lack of merit.

As the supply of prisoners and mental patients dried up, researchers looked to other countries.
It made sense. Clinical trials could be done more cheaply and with fewer rules. And it was easy to find patients who were taking no medication, a factor that can complicate tests of other drugs.

Additional sets of ethical guidelines have been enacted, and few believe that another Guatemala study could happen today.

Despite modern-day outrage, it has not stopped Tuskegee-style experiments continuing.

American-funded doctors in Uganda failed to give the Aids drug AZT to HIV-infected pregnant women, even though it would have protected their newborns.

U.S. health officials argued the study would answer questions about AZT’s use in the developing world.

The other study, by Pfizer, gave an antibiotic named Trovan to children with meningitis in Nigeria, although there were doubts about its effectiveness for that disease.

Critics blamed the experiment for the deaths of 11 children and the disabling of scores of others.

Pfizer settled a lawsuit with Nigerian officials for $75 million but admitted no wrongdoing.

The issue of American-led foreign studies was still being debated when, last October, the Guatemala study came to light.

In the 1946-48 study, American scientists infected prisoners and patients in a mental hospital in Guatemala with syphilis, apparently to test whether penicillin could prevent some sexually transmitted disease. The study came up with no useful information and was hidden for decades.


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One Response to " U.S. experimented on disabled citizens and prison inmates "

  1. Peter Aleff says:

    Ugly medical experiments continue today and here

    Thank you for his informative account about past medical abuses of defenseless people. Unfortunately, the abuses continue today not only in the US but also in other countries, including some in the European Union, and are in some cases even worse than those old transgressions you describe.

    For instance, the SUPPORT study published last May 16 in the New England Journal of Medicine tells how researchers at 16 US hospitals experimented with reducing the oxygen breathing help for premature babies although they knew that this greatly increased the risk of death for those desperately gasping preemies.

    These researchers wanted to find out if reducing the oxygen would reduce the combined rate of death and blinding from retinopathy of prematurity, as if these two outcomes had the same importance for the babies, and as if intact eyes were of any use to a dead child. Their knowingly asphyxiating study preventably killed 23 extra babies in the low-oxygen group, or
    3.7 per cent, with a 96 per cent probability that this predictable “better dead than blind” result was not a statistical fluke.

    Parallel studies with the same baby-killing protocol are currently being conducted in England, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, with the Canadian study recruiting babies not only in Canada but also in Germany, Finland, USA, Israel, and Argentina.

    All these studies are part of the NeOProM group of trials on preemies which aims to combine the results for greater statistical power, see biomedcentral.com/1471-2431/11/6. Its authors cite the disastrous results from the first oxygen
    withholding study, held in 1954/55 in the USA, which killed 16 children for each case of blindness prevented and caused an estimated death toll of 150,000 babies in the first 20 years.

    The influence of that rigged study continues to dominate intensive care nursery practices around the world and led to the NeOProM protocol.

    Based on the known effects of oxygen withholding, these authors state openly that none of the current trials will be able to exclude the possibility of “a small but significant four per cent increase in death or serious neurosensory disability in survivors”, as if it was OK to sacrifice any human babies for this sickening “science”.

    The British study is called BOOST II-UK and has the
    registration number ISRCTN00842661. It planned to enroll 1200 preemies from September 2007 to February 2011 and is scheduled to be published in September 2013.

    The Canadian study has the acronym COT and the registration number ISRCTN62491227. It planned to enroll 1200 preemies from January 2007 to July 2010 and is scheduled for publication in June 2012.

    As with many of the examples cited in the article, the brief press coverage of the SUPPORT study publication mentioned the promise of reduced blinding but omitted any mention of the meticulously planned medical mass murder.

    All the medical grant givers and Institutional Review Boards involved had approved this cold-blooded baby-killing experiment. In the US, no one appears to have told the parents what the doctors were doing to their children: the National Institutes of Health searched their files for my Freedom of Information request and could not find any records of the Informed Consent Forms that patients or their parents
    are supposed to sign before any medical experiment on any human subject can begin. Since preemies cannot complain those researchers apparently considered it OK to treat them behind their parents’ backs as disposable guinea pigs.

    A similar deception is likely in the other countries because no sane parent will knowingly agree to increase the risk of death for their child, and even if they did their consent would be illegal because they must protect the interest of the child.

    For a detailed description of this modern-day cruel and lethal experiment on the most vulnerable and defenseless babies, see my recent complaint about it to the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, at

    Peter Aleff

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