Human Experimentation on the Web

The twentieth century has been a time of rapid advances in technology. Along with this growth has come an abundance in ethical problems as science struggles to balance human life against research. The United States government was a leading force in prosecuting German doctors and military officials who operated on prisoners without their consent during World War II, but as the U. S. led the crusade against the Nazis it was committing the same crimes: research on human subjects without their understanding or consent.

In recent years, the widespread acceptance of the Internet has coincided with two historical events in human experimentation: the 25th anniversary of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which in the name of scientific progress left Southern Blacks infected with the venereal disease syphilis, and the admission of Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary that the U. S. government had been conducting radiation experiments on unknowing patients. Web pages on the subject abound; here are some relating to the subject of human experimentation and in particular to these two incidents.

General Documents and Resources

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Beginning in 1932, the United States government funded a study of the venereal disease syphilis in Macon County, Alabama. 35 percent of the residents of Macon County had syphilis at the time (Final Report of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Ad Hoc Advisory Panel. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Public Health Service, 1973), one of the highest syphilis concentrations in the nation.

The study sought to understand the spread of syphilis and better examine its effects on the human body. To best examine this, government researchers found it most desirable to not only have a high concentration of syphilis in a given area; they wanted a high concentration of untreated syphilis. The Final Report of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study states that, in at least one case, treatment was withheld from Macon County residents known to be infected; "written letters and open interviews" between the panel responsible for this document and participants in the study suggest that this was common practice.

This study had enormous ethical implications that were largely ignored by researchers. The intentional denial of treatment is a simple example: while 85 percent of syphilis victims receiving proper medical care for the disease recovered completely, only 35 percent not receiving treatment were able to do so (ibid.). Even once it was established during the 1940's that penicillin would effectively treat syphilis and after this treatment became commonplace around 1952-53, the study and the denial of medical care continued for another 18 years until 1970.

Other issues of discrimination and informed consent quickly came forward as well. 82.4 percent of Macon County was black; there was no written plan for the study; while residents voluntarily agreed to a medical examination there was no evidence that they knowingly consented to being the subjects of a study. The Final Report concludes that, due to a shuffling of subjects between the control and syphilitic groups and the fact that most subjects received treatment for their disease outside of the study, the study was worthless scientifically. Without letting anybody affected know what was going on, the U. S. government effectively agreed to let the residents of Macon County die.

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Atomic Energy Commission Radiation Experiments

In December, 1993, Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary made a disturbing announcement: since the 1940's, the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission had been sponsoring a series of tests on the effects of radiation on the human body. American citizens who had checked into hospitals for a variety of ailments had been secretly injected with varying amounts of plutonium and other radioactive materials without their knowledge. Most patients thought it was "just another injection," but the secret studies left enough radioactive material in the patients' bodies to readily induce cancer.

Unlike the Tuskegee study, the researchers here were careful to follow up on their patients, and in many cases were able to determine where the plutonium had spread to after the patients' death several years later. However, its methods are arguably more ethically questionable than those used in the Tuskegee study. In the AEC tests, the patients' trust in their doctors and hospitals had essentially been betrayed. While the patients did receive the treatment they needed for their initial ailment, they were being given something whose effects were wholly unknown but was expected to cause harm.

Other experiments were conducted with other agencies. "Human Experiment 133" tested the effects upon the pilot and crew of an aircraft flying through a radiation cloud for 25-40 minutes. The Department of Defense ran tests on people living downwind of atomic tests. Prisoners in Washington and Oregon were exposed to radiation with only minimal consent. The true purposes of these tests were kept hidden from the public and the test subjects for almost 50 years.

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During the 50 years since World War II, the U. S. government consistently ignored the ethical standards it set at the Nuremberg Trials for human experimentation to try to press through its perceived testing needs without alarming the American public. Whatever the gains, the ethical lapses far outshadowed the possible benefits from the Tuskegee syphilis study and the various Atomic Energy Commission radiation experiments. While recent laws try to better preserve the concepts of informed consent and minimized risk, the threat of being experimented on against one's will still remains in the American system.

Created by David Maze as an assignment for STS.011: American Science: Ethical Conflicts and Political Choices. This page is online at