Tech UPTechnologySlaves and Disabled: Forced Medical Test Volunteers

Slaves and Disabled: Forced Medical Test Volunteers

Imagine that you wanted to do medical research in 1845 in South Carolina. What better source of volunteers than to turn to slaves? That was what the so-called “father of modern gynecology”, J. Marion Sims, did. His concern was to solve the problem of vesicovaginal fistulas, abnormal communications between the urinary bladder and the vagina that continuously deposit urine in the female reproductive system . To do this, he began to perform surgeries with seven slaves who suffered from it and who were subjected to extremely painful operations without anesthesia (which would be discovered a year later). One of the slaves named Anarcha underwent 30 surgeries before Sims perfected the technique and cured her. However, none of the women who served as guinea pigs gave their consent : it was given by their owners as they were slaves. For them it was a purely economic issue, since a woman with this type of fistula could not work properly due to her continuous loss of urine.

Sims took advantage of the southern slave system to experiment on humans . Although some defend the ethical value of this research by appealing to the standards of the time, the truth is that it was not until he refined the surgical treatment with black slaves that he began to do the same with white women. And despite the fact that the doctor himself declared years later that the operation “was not painful enough to be a problem”, many white women left the operation halfway because of the pain it caused them. Something slaves obviously had no right to do.

With the abolition of slavery, medical researchers had to find a new receptive population to sacrifice themselves -unknowingly- for scientific advance. And they found it in the mentally handicapped. For this, the researchers only had to go to the appropriate centers, such as the Walter E. Fernald State School, an institution founded in 1848. There, between 1946 and 1953, scientists from Harvard University under the direction of Robert S. Harris, professor of nutrition at the prestigious MIT, more than fifty students were exposed to small doses of radioactive iron and calcium . 

A letter from 1949 is preserved in which the director of the school asked the parents for authorization so that their children could participate in an experiment where they were going to be given a “special diet” with which the absorption of cereals, iron and nutrients would be studied. vitamins… but not to mention that radioactive tracers were going to be used. Boys were encouraged to join this “Science Club” in exchange for larger portions of food , parties, and trips to see the Boston Red Sox play. Meanwhile, between 1947 and 1949 Swedish dentists convened by the National Dental Service designed a careful research program to check whether, as suspected, the consumption of sugar caused cavities. And what better way than to give away large amounts of goodies to the inmates of the Vipeholm mental institution .

The results were released in 1953 and four years later the Swedish government began a major campaign to prevent tooth decay among the population. A whole health policy at the expense of the teeth of more than 600 inmates of a psychiatric hospital.

The mentally handicapped were a vein of free volunteers and this time the lottery was won by the students of the Willowbrook State School for the Retarded, who were infected with the hepatitis virus between 1956 and 1972 . Those responsible were the discoverer of the hepatitis B vaccine, Saul Krugman, and the virologist Robert W. McCollum of New York University, who wanted to verify the validity of gamma globulin in its treatment. Of course the parents gave their consent, but they signed that their children were going to receive a vaccine against the virus . Furthermore, the center’s management did not admit children whose working-class parents did not have the resources to pay for a private school and did not consent to the test.

Of course, in addition to the mentally handicapped, scientists have also had the poor orphans within their reach. In January 1939, the American psychologist Wendell Johnson began a terrible experiment with 22 orphans between the ages of 5 and 15 in Davenport, Iowa. No one informed the boys of what Johnson and his doctoral student Mary Tudor were going to do: turn them into stutterers. .

To do this, they were divided into two groups: one was the control group, to which Tudor gave some positive therapy sessions, praising their way of speaking; With those of the other group , every little imperfection of their speech was criticized, telling them that they were incorrigible stutterers . In this way Johnson intended to prove his hypothesis of the origin of stuttering: “it is in the ear of the parents and not in the mouth of the child”. Dubbed the “monster study”, it did not produce the expected results and the only thing that remained of that experiment was the doctoral thesis presented at the University of Iowa by Mary Tudor and the negative psychological effects created gratuitously in a group of kids.

Tudor wrote to his thesis director on April 22, 1940: “I think they will recover in time but I am sure that we have left an indelible mark on them.” He always regretted that Johnson had not spent the time and effort to undo the psychological problems they had created for them . If I’ve seen you I don’t remember. And what better way to employ foundlings than to use them as practice objects in Home Economics classes, aimed at female students in the 1920s and 30s? Cornell University’s advertising is explicit enough: “Each of Cornell’s two internship apartments is outfitted with a real baby.”


Hussain, Z. (1998). “MIT to pay $1.85 million in Fernald radiation settlement”. The Tech. Vol.11, no.65. 

Offit, P. A. (2007). Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases. Smithsonian Books/Collins 

Sartin, J. S. (May 2004). “J. Marion Sims, the Father of Gynecology: Hero or Villain?”. Southern Medical Journal. 97 (5): 500–505. doi:10.1097/00007611-200405000-00017 

Tudor, M. (1939) An Experimental Study of the Effect of Evaluative Labeling of Speech Fluency. University of Iowa. doi:10.17077/etd.9z9lxfgn

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