Unethical human experimentation in the United States describes numerous experiments performed on human test subjects in the United States that have been considered unethical, and were often performed illegally, without the knowledge, or consent of the test subjects.

The experiments include: the exposure to many chemical and biological weapons, human radiation experiments, injection of toxic and radioactive chemicals, surgical experiments, interrogation and torture experiments, and a wide variety of others that we will discuss today. Many of these tests were performed on children, the sick, and mentally disabled individuals, often under the guise of “medical treatment”.

Most of these tests were performed, funded, or supervised by the United States military, Atomic Energy Commission, or various other U.S. federal government agencies. Much information about these programs was classified and kept secret. In 1986 the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce released a report entitled American Nuclear Guinea Pigs : Three Decades of Radiation Experiments on U.S. Citizens. In many of the studies that we will discuss, you will find out that a large portion of the subjects were poor, racial minorities, or prisoners.

Pathogens, diseases, and biological warfare agents

In 1909, F. C. Knowles released a study describing how he had deliberately infected two children in an orphanage with Molluscum contagiosum—a virus that causes wart-like growths—after an outbreak in the orphanage, in order to study the disease.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment was a clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama, by the U.S. Public Health Service. In the experiment, 399 impoverished black males who had syphilis were offered “treatment” by the researchers, who did not tell the test subjects that they had syphilis and did not give them treatment for the disease, but rather just studied them to chart the progress of the disease. By 1947, penicillin became available as treatment, but those running the study prevented study participants from receiving treatment elsewhere, lying to them about their true condition, so that they could observe the effects of syphilis on the human body.

By the end of the study in 1972, only 74 of the test subjects were alive. 28 of the original 399 men had died of syphilis, 100 were dead of related complications, 40 of their wives had been infected, and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis. The study was not shut down until 1972, when its existence was leaked to the press, forcing the researchers to stop in the face of a public outcry

The Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study

The Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study was a controlled study of the effects of malaria on the prisoners of Stateville Penitentiary near Joliet, Illinois, beginning in the 1940s. The study was conducted by the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago in conjunction with the United States Army and the State Department. The study continued at Stateville Penitentiary for 29 years. In related studies from 1944 to 1946, Dr. Alf Alving, a professor at the University of Chicago Medical School, purposely infected psychiatric patients at the Illinois State Hospital with malaria so that he could test experimental treatments on them. Side note: At the Nuremberg trials, Nazi doctors cited the precedent of these malaria experiments as part of their defense.

The Harvard University Experiments

In 1942, the Harvard University biochemist Edward Cohn injected 64 Massachusetts prisoners with cow blood, as part of an experiment sponsored by the U.S. Navy.

At Harvard University, in the late 1940s, researchers began performing experiments in which they tested diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic estrogen, on pregnant women at the Lying-In Hospital of the University of Chicago. The women experienced an abnormally high number of miscarriages and babies with low birth weight. None of the women were told that they were being experimented on.

Operation Sea Spray

In 1950, in order to conduct a simulation of a biological warfare attack, the U.S. Navy sprayed large quantities of the bacteria Serratia marcescens – considered harmless at the time – over the city of San Francisco during a project called Operation Sea-Spray. Numerous citizens contracted pneumonia-like illnesses, and at least one person died as a result. The family of the man who died sued the government for gross negligence, but a federal judge ruled in favor of the government in 1981. Serratia tests were continued until at least 1969.

Willowbrook State School Experiments

From the 1950s to 1972, mentally disabled children at the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York were intentionally infected with viral hepatitis, for research whose purpose was to help discover a vaccine. From 1963 to 1966, Saul Krugman of New York University promised the parents of mentally disabled children that their children would be enrolled into Willowbrook in exchange for signing a consent form for procedures that he claimed were “vaccinations.” In reality, the procedures involved deliberately infecting children with viral hepatitis by feeding them an extract made from the feces of patients infected with the disease.

Harold Blauer and Columbia University

In 1952, professional tennis player Harold Blauer died when injected by Dr. James Cattell with a fatal dose of a mescaline derivative at the New York State Psychiatric Institute of Columbia University. The United States Department of Defense, which sponsored the injection, worked in collusion with the Department of Justice and the New York State Attorney General to conceal evidence of its involvement for 23 years. Dr.Cattell claimed that he did not know what the army had given him to inject into Blauer, saying: “We didn’t know whether it was dog piss or what we were giving him.”

Sloan Kettering Institute Experiments

In 1952, Chester M. Southam, a Sloan-Kettering Institute researcher, injected live cancer cells, known as HeLa cells, into prisoners at the Ohio State Penitentiary and cancer patients. Also at Sloan-Kettering, 300 healthy women were injected with live cancer cells without being told. The doctors stated that they knew at the time that it might cause cancer.

Operation Big Itch

During the 1950s the United States conducted a series of field tests using entomological weapons. Operation Big Itch, in 1954, was designed to test munitions loaded with fleas. In May 1955 over 300,000 mosquitoes were dropped over parts of the U.S. state of Georgia to determine if the air-dropped mosquitoes could survive to take meals from humans. The mosquito tests were known as Operation Big Buzz.

Sonoma State Hospital Experimentations

From 1955 to 1960, Sonoma State Hospital in northern California served as a permanent drop-off location for mentally disabled children diagnosed with cerebral palsy or lesser disorders. The children subsequently underwent painful experimentation without adult consent. Many were given spinal taps “for which they received no direct benefit.” Reporters of 60 Minutes learned that in these five years, the brain of every child with cerebral palsy who died at Sonoma State was removed and studied without parental consent. According to the CBS story, over 1,400 patients died at the clinic.

American Cancer Society Experiments

In 1963, 22 elderly patients at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital in Brooklyn, New York were injected with live cancer cells by Chester M. Southam, who in 1952 had done the same to prisoners at the Ohio State Prison, in order to “discover the secret of how healthy bodies fight the invasion of malignant cells”. The administration of the hospital attempted to cover the study up, but the New York medical licensing board ultimately placed Southam on probation for one year. Two years later, the American Cancer Society elected him as their Vice President.

Dow Chemical Company Experiments

From approximately 1951 to 1974, the Holmesburg Prison in Pennsylvania was the site of extensive dermatological research operations, using prisoners as subjects. Led by Dr. Albert M. Kligman of the University of Pennsylvania, the studies were performed on behalf of Dow Chemical Company, the U.S. Army, and Johnson & Johnson. In one of the studies, for which Dow Chemical paid Kligman $10,000, Kligman injected dioxin — a highly toxic, carcinogenic compound found in Agent Orange, which Dow was manufacturing for use in Vietnam at the time — into 70 prisoners (most of them black). The prisoners developed severe lesions which went untreated for seven months. Dow Chemical wanted to study the health effects of dioxin and other herbicides, and how they affect human skin, because workers at their chemical plants were developing chloracne. In the study, Kligman applied roughly the same amount of dioxin as that to which Dow employees were being exposed.
Kligman later continued his dioxin studies, increasing the dosage of dioxin he applied to the skin of 10 prisoners to 7,500 micrograms of dioxin, which is 468 times the dosage that the Dow Chemical official Gerald K. Rowe had authorized him to administer. As a result, the prisoners developed inflammatory pustules and papules.

Human Radiation Experiments

Operation Green Run

In a 1949 operation called the “Green Run,” the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission released iodine-131 and xenon-133 into the atmosphere near the Hanford site in Washington, which contaminated a 500,000 acre area containing three small towns.

Atomic Energy Commission and University of Iowa

In 1953, the AEC ran several studies at the University of Iowa on the health effects of radioactive iodine in newborns and pregnant women. In one study, researchers gave pregnant women from 100 to 200 microcuries (3.7 to 7.4 MBq) of iodine-131, in order to study the women’s aborted embryos in an attempt to discover at what stage, and to what extent, radioactive iodine crosses the placental barrier. In another study, they gave 25 newborn babies (who were under 36 hours old and weighed from 5.5 to 8.5 pounds iodine-131, either by oral administration or through an injection, so that they could measure the amount of iodine in their thyroid glands, as iodine would go to that gland.

Harper Hospital Radiation Experiments

In 1953, the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) sponsored a study to discover if radioactive iodine affected premature babies differently from full-term babies. In the experiment, researchers from Harper Hospital in Detroit orally administered iodine-131 to 65 premature and full-term infants who weighed from 2.1 to 5.5 pounds

Massachusetts General Hospital

Between 1953 and 1957, at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. William Sweet injected eleven terminally ill, comatose and semi-comatose patients with uranium in an experiment to determine, among other things, its viability as a chemotherapy treatment against brain tumors, which all but one of the patients had (one being a misdiagnosis). Dr. Sweet, who died in 2001, maintained that consent had been obtained from the patients and next of kin.

Albert Stevens Cancer

Albert Stevens, a man misdiagnosed with stomach cancer, received “treatment” for his “cancer” at the U.C. San Francisco Medical Center in 1945. Dr. Joseph Gilbert Hamilton, a Manhattan Project doctor in charge of the human experiments in California had Stevens injected with Pu-238 and Pu-239 without informed consent. Stevens never had cancer; a surgery to remove cancerous cells was highly successful in removing the benign tumor, and he lived for another 20 years with the injected plutonium. Since Stevens received the highly radioactive Pu-238, his accumulated dose over his remaining life was higher than anyone has ever received: 64 Sv (6400 rem). Neither Albert Stevens nor any of his relatives were told that he never had cancer; they were led to believe that the experimental “treatment” had worked. His cremated remains were surreptitiously acquired by Argonne National Laboratory Center for Human Radiobiology in 1975 without the consent of surviving relatives. Some of the ashes were transferred to the National Human Radiobiology Tissue Repository at Washington State University, which keeps the remains of people who died having radioisotopes in their body.

Vanderbilt University

Immediately after World War II, researchers at Vanderbilt University gave 829 pregnant mothers in Tennessee what they were told were “vitamin drinks” that would improve the health of their babies. The mixtures contained radioactive iron and the researchers were determining how fast the radioisotope crossed into the placenta. At least three children are known to have died from the experiments, from cancers and leukemia. Four of the women’s babies died from cancers as a result of the experiments, and the women experienced rashes, bruises, anemia, hair/tooth loss, and cancer.

Walter E. Fernald State School

From 1946 to 1953, at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Massachusetts, in an experiment sponsored by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the Quaker Oats corporation, 73 mentally disabled children were fed oatmeal containing radioactive calcium and other radioisotopes, in order to track “how nutrients were digested”. The children were not told that they were being fed radioactive chemicals; they were told by hospital staff and researchers that they were joining a “science club”.

Medical College of Virginia

In the 1950s, researchers at the Medical College of Virginia performed experiments on severe burn victims, most of them poor and black, without their knowledge or consent, with funding from the Army and in collaboration with the AEC. In the experiments, the subjects were exposed to additional burning, experimental antibiotic treatment, and injections of radioactive isotopes. The amount of radioactive phosphorus-32 injected into some of the patients, 500 microcuries (19 MBq), was 50 times the “acceptable” dose for a healthy individual; for people with severe burns, this likely led to significantly increased death rates.

In another study at the Walter E. Fernald State School, in 1956, researchers gave mentally disabled children radioactive calcium orally and intravenously. They also injected radioactive chemicals into malnourished babies and then collected cerebrospinal fluid for analysis from their brains and spines.

Utah State Prison

In 1961 and 1962, ten Utah State Prison inmates had blood samples taken which were mixed with radioactive chemicals and reinjected back into their bodies.

Operation Plumbbob

In 1957, atmospheric nuclear explosions in Nevada, which were part of Operation Plumbbob were later determined to have released enough radiation to have caused from 11,000 to 212,000 excess cases of thyroid cancer among U.S. citizens who were exposed to fallout from the explosions, leading to between 1,100 and 21,000 deaths.

Project Gabriel and Project Sunshine

Early in the Cold War, in studies known as Project Gabriel and Project Sunshine, researchers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia tried to determine how much nuclear fallout would be required to make the Earth uninhabitable. They realized that atmospheric nuclear testing had provided them an opportunity to investigate this. Such tests had dispersed radioactive contamination worldwide, and examination of human bodies could reveal how readily it was taken up and hence how much damage it caused. Of particular interest was strontium-90 in the bones. Infants were the primary focus, as they would have had a full opportunity to absorb the new contaminants. As a result of this conclusion, researchers began a program to collect human bodies and bones from all over the world, with a particular focus on infants. The bones were cremated and the ashes analyzed for radioisotopes. This project was kept secret primarily because it would be a public relations disaster; as a result parents and family were not told what was being done with the body parts of their relatives.

Department of Defense

Between 1960 and 1971, the Department of Defense funded non-consensual whole body radiation experiments on mostly poor and black cancer patients, who were not told what was being done to them. Patients were told that they were receiving a “treatment” that might cure their cancer, but the Pentagon was trying to determine the effects of high levels of radiation on the human body. One of the doctors involved in the experiments, Robert Stone, was worried about litigation by the patients. He referred to them only by their initials on the medical reports. He did this so that, in his words, “there will be no means by which the patients can ever connect themselves up with the report”, in order to prevent “either adverse publicity or litigation”.

Dr. Eugene Saenger

From 1960 to 1971, Dr. Eugene Saenger, funded by the Defense Atomic Support Agency, performed whole body radiation experiments on more than 90 poor, black, advanced stage cancer patients with inoperable tumors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center during the Cincinnati Radiation Experiments. He forged consent forms, and did not inform the patients of the risks of irradiation. The patients were given 100 or more rads (1 Gy) of whole-body radiation, which in many caused intense pain and vomiting.

Dr. Carl Heller

From 1963 to 1973, a leading endocrinologist, Dr. Carl Heller, irradiated the testicles of over 300 Oregon and Washington prisoners to determine the effects of radiation on testicular function. In return for their participation, he gave them $5 a month. When these inmates later left prison and had children, at least four of them had offspring born with birth defects. The exact number of birth defects is unknown because researchers never followed up on the status of the subjects.

Modern Times

In 2004, University of Minnesota research participant Dan Markingson committed suicide while enrolled in an industry-sponsored pharmaceutical trial comparing three FDA-approved atypical antipsychotics: Seroquel (quetiapine), Zyprexa (olanzapine), and Risperdal (risperidone). Writing on the circumstances surrounding Markingson’s death in the study, which was designed and funded by Seroquel manufacturer AstraZeneca, University of Minnesota Professor of Bioethics Carl Elliott noted that Markingson was enrolled in the study against the wishes of his mother, Mary Weiss, and that he was forced to choose between enrolling in the study or being involuntarily committed to a state mental institution. Further investigation revealed financial ties to AstraZeneca by Markingson’s psychiatrist, Dr. Stephen C. Olson, oversights and biases in AstraZeneca’s trial design, and the inadequacy of University Institutional Review Board (IRB) protections for research subjects. A 2005 FDA investigation cleared the University and Dr. Olson.

Northfield Labs Artificial Blood

From 2000–2010, artificial blood was transfused into research subjects across the United States without their consent by Northfield Labs. Later studies showed the artificial blood caused a significant increase in the risk of heart attacks and death.

Raytheon Pain Ray

In August 2010, the U.S. weapons manufacturer Raytheon announced that it had partnered with a jail in Castaic, California in order to use prisoners as test subjects for its Active Denial System that “fires an invisible heat beam capable of causing unbearable pain.” The device, dubbed “pain ray” by its critics, was rejected for fielding in Iraq due to Pentagon fears that it would be used as an instrument of torture.

As of 2007, not a single U.S. government researcher had been prosecuted for human experimentation. The victims of U.S. government experiments have not received compensation or, in many cases, acknowledgment of what was done to them.