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"The mere mention of experimental medical research on incapacitated human beings -- the mentally ill, the profoundly retarded, and minor children -- summons up visceral reactions, with recollections of the brutal Nazi experimentation.... Even without the planned brutality, we have had deplorable instances of over-reaching medical research in this country."
[Justice Edward Greenfield, T.D. v. NYSOMH, 1995]

History of Human Research

(For a chronology of human research, click here.)

Human Experimentation:
Before the Nazi Era and After

"First animals, then orphans, then the mentally retarded."
David J. Rothman, Strangers At The Bedside.

Note: This is an excerpt from a piece by Roberta Kalechofsky, PhD. The full version is available at: http://www.micahbooks.com/readingroom/humanexperimentation.html

In 1907, Dr. Albert Leffingwell concluded his booklet, Illustration of Human Vivisection, with this chilling prophecy:

"At the beginning of a new century we are confronted by great problems. One of these is human vivisection in the name of scientific research. We appeal, then, to the medical press of America to beak that unfortunate silence which seems to justify or, at least, to condone it. Now and henceforth, will it not join us in condemning every such vivisector of little children, every such experimenter upon human beings? We make this appeal to it in the name of Justice and Humanity and for the sake of millions yet unborn."

The intellectual and philosophical rationalizations, as well as much of the practice of human experimentation, was well advanced by the end of the nineteenth century, and presents a continuing danger to human rights today, particularly when faced with the stimulus of crisis and war.

The history of human experimentation in the West is usefully divided into two eras: before the Nazi era and after. Human experimentation neither arose with the Nazis, nor ended with them. But the Nazi era, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson's famous statement that "Nothing concentrates a man's thoughts so much as the knowledge that he is to be hanged on the morrow"--the Nazi era concentrated our thoughts about human experimentation and, to some extent, halted its momentum. But it did not end the practice of what Dr. Leffingwell called at the beginning of the century, "the secret creed."

Vivisection was practiced in the Roman era on gladiators and slaves. But this vivisection, monstrous to the living victim, was sporadic. The real history of vivisection begins in the nineteenth century with the rise of the experimental method in science, and subsequently in medicine. It arises from and accompanies animal experimentation which, with the work of Claude Bernard in the mid-nineteenth century, became the standard methodology in modern medicine. As soon as animal vivisection became standard practice, the question arose about experimental research on human beings. Animal researchers recognized that an inescapable problem had been created: the only way animal research could really be validated for human medical problems was to finally conduct the experiment on human beings, for there is no assurance from animal research itself that a given drug would be valid for human application. A famous example is the fact that aspirin kills rabbits, and if researchers had been guided in their use of aspirins by this laboratory research, human beings would have been denied a valuable drug. Michael Krater summarizes the process in his book, Doctors Under Hitler.

" One of the prerequisites that turned into a sort of fetish of this exact-scientific attitude was the experiment--it, too, a child of rationalization in the past century. At the universities, the theories had to be validated by experiments. It was unquestioned that advances in medicine (as in natural science) could be achieved only through the inductive method of formulating a hypothesis and testing it, by subjecting it to revision and verification in a controlled series of empirical observations."

However, Michael Krater's further statement is only partially true: "Throughout the 1920s and well into the Third Reich, German medical scientists were ruled by a consensus that as desirable as human experiments were, for moral reasons animals had to suffice as objects of empirical experimentation." That was the desideratum, but by the turn of the century experimentation on human beings was on its way to becoming respectable. The famous chemist, E.E. Slosson wrote on Dec. 12th,1895, in the New York Independent, "A human life is nothing compared with a new fact in science....the aim of science is the advancement of human knowledge at any sacrifice of human life....We do not know of any higher use we can put a man to." Professor Starling of University College, London, openly declared in 1906 to Britain's Parliament at its investigation into vivisection practices, "The last experiment must be on man."

What animal research does is to provide a seemingly safety net and guidelines for procedure with human beings. Sometimes this safety net works, sometimes it doesn't; sometimes it's misleading, but it is standard procedure, so that animal and human experimentation are two sides of the same coin. An article in The New Republic (April 26 and May 2, 1999) by Jerome Groopman, quixotically entitled "Merciful Medicine," describes the system very well:

"After extensive testing in small animals, drugs are tested for toxicity in human beings during what is known as Phase I trials. This first phase is designed to gauge the side effects of the drugs, usually on groups of three or four people that get very low doses of the drug, followed by groups that receive successively higher doses until intolerable toxicity is reached [like LD50 drug testing in animals]. There is no expectation of clinical benefit in this first phase. Furthermore, Phase I studies take virtually all comers."

Groopman goes on to describe Phase II and Phase III of human experimentation, in an article intended as a plea to allow those who wish to to volunteer for human experimentation. It was only a matter of time until medicine would arrive at this point where the need for volunteers for human experimentation would become inescapable and would mandate a "merciful plea." As Michael Krater describes the escalation under Nazi Germany, "Because animal experimentation was known to be a poor substitute for experiments on humans, for only analogous inferences could be drawn, the crossover to human experimentation during the war became a logical consequence of prior practices that had been fettered."

The evolution from animal experimentation to human experimentation is a logical consequence of laws governing the experimental process, whether in Nazi Germany, or elsewhere, and not the result of preferring humans to animals. As Krater writes, "...the often-encountered theory that Nazis spurned human life in preference for that of animals, in particular house pets, is without basis in fact--non-suspect societies love pets also."

The Weimar law passed in 1931 with respect to animal and human experimentation required that German and, subsequently Nazi, doctors must first conduct their experimental procedures on animals before proceeding to human beings. This law was never abrogated in Nazi Germany and is similar to laws in the United States today. All experiments with human beings are and were first conducted on animals, and experimenters in and out of Nazi Germany had to validate this procedure. Thus, when Dr. Karl Rascher made his request on May 15, 1941 to the Reich Leader Himmler, "for two or three professional criminals," for high altitude test experiments of eighteen thousand meters, he pointed out that this experiment had been tried on monkeys, but that monkeys outlived their usefulness at 12,000 meters, and he now had to proceed to the use of humans. Research on animals does not protect human beings from becoming experimental guinea pigs.

The literature of the nineteenth century illustrates a continuing increase in the use of human beings for medical experiments, beginning in the last two decades of that century. With the rise of the germ theory and of the pharmaceutical companies, testing on both animals and humans proliferated at dizzying speeds. In her book, Subjected to Science: Human Experimentation in America Before the Second World War, Susan Lederer writes:

"The science of bacteriology engendered substantial experimentation on human beings and animals....Isolating and identifying a disease germ under the microscope was the first step. After growing the microorganism in a pure culture, the physicians needed to use the germ to produce the disease in a healthy organism.

"The use of human beings to confirm that a microbe caused a particular disease to demonstrate the mode of transmission was a harsh legacy of the germ theory of disease. Unable to find a suitable animal model in which to study the disease, physicians turned to human subjects. Before the discovery that monkeys could be infected with syphilis and gonorrhea, the search for microbes of venereal disease prompted more than forty reports of experiments in which individuals were inoculated with the suspected germs of gonorrhea and syphilis. In 1895 New York pediatrician Henry Heiman...described the successful gonorrheal infection of a 4-year-old boy ("an idiot with chronic epilepsy"), a 16-year-old boy (an "idiot") and a 26-year-old man in the final stages of tuberculosis"

This information is in the medical journals of its time, The American Journal of Syphilis of 1943, and the Journal Cut. Genito-Urinary Diseases of 1895. It is germane to the problem of informed consent that two of the subjects are described as "idiots," therefore presumably incapable of giving informed consent. Who then gave it for them, and should others have the right to give such consent for others? Should a parent in need of money have the right to give consent for a child to be experimented upon? Would this be considered "selling" a child to science. These are problems that degrade the integrity of the concept of informed consent.

Usually the human beings used for experimental purposes were--and are-- the disenfranchised, populations of prisoners, orphans, the mentally retarded, charity patients of all kinds. Dr. Leffingwell's study uncovered decades of experiments on human beings in charity wards and on children in orphan asylums. None of these experiments were as horrific as those conducted by the Nazis, but they were quite serious enough. Leffingwell documented experiments by Dr. Sydney Ringer of University Hospital of London, who experimented with poisons, such as overdoses of salicin, nitrate of sodium, gelseminum and other toxic agents, often on children under the age of ten. Due to the experiments, the children suffered from severe headaches, vomiting, twitching of limbs, burning sensations in the eyes, and other painful symptoms. Dr. Leffingwell commented:

"A distressing feature of many of these experiments is the fact that the men and women upon whom they were performed were not only ignorant, but under constraint. In this horrible case certain patients in the hospitals were not merely poisoned once, but were obliged 'on compulsion' to undergo the convulsive paroxysms and all the other agonizing symptoms a second time."

To read the rest of this article, please click here. (This will take you to another site.)

For a chronology of human research, click here.

Link to the bibliography compiled by the U.S. Holocaust Museum: http://www.ushmm.org/research/library/bibliography/medexp/right.htm


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