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Bioethics - Unethical human experimentation 

Written by Thomas P | Wednesday, October 6

History of unethical human experimentation 

The recorded history of unethical human experimentation goes back to the late 19th century, with its peak being in the early 20th century. This was largely the result of such experiments being largely unregulated by federal law. Today, we have safeguards in place to prevent unethical experimentation, at least in the United States. 

Notable examples of unethical human experiments

Here are some notable examples of unethical human experimentation, around the world: 

1874: Robert Bartholomew places electrodes on a study participant with a tumor in order to determine whether electric current causes bodily movements or pain. The study participant was killed as a result. 

1900: Walter Reed, U.S. Army physician injects and exposes his study participants to yellow fever and yellow fever bearing mosquitoes, respectively.

1939: The “Monster Study”: Conducted in order to determine if stuttering is the cause of outside influences. The study insulted normally speaking children in order to determine if they would stutter. 

World War II: The Japanese and Germans conduct a variety of unethical experiments. In Nazi Germany, they infamously conducted experiments on prisoners at Concentration Camps against their will; an example of this is the set of experiments conducted on prisoners who were twins, who exposed to freezing temperatures, and low pressures (simulating high altitudes). 

1945-1955: The Vipeholm experiments: Children were fed large amounts of sweets in order to see if they would develop dental caries. The experiment was regarded as a success, but in retrospect, most unethical. 

1950’s-1960’s: Oncologist Chester Southam injects cancer cells into healthy participants. 

1971: The Stanford Prison Experiment: A psychological study on a mock prison with fake guards and fake prisoners that were actually study participants. The study was prematurely ended because it proved too traumatic for the participants. 

Safeguards in place to prevent unethical human experimentation 

The National Research Act of 1974 mandates that all human experimentation be scrutinized by an Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB typically has the duty of ensuring that the research methods are ethical and that study participants are treated fairly (and of course, are not coerced at any point). The IRB also ensures that researchers do not deviate from their original method initially presented to them.

About the Author

Thomas is a student at Eastside High School.