5 Cruel and Unusual Science Experiments (Funded by the US Government)




Not your average science experiment...

Medical ethics has come a long way since the beginning of the Cold War. Novel concepts like "informed consent" and "transparency" are commonplace now, but what were researchers doing before that? Here are 5 old-timey science experiments funded by the United States government to show you.

Operation Midnight Climax

Operation Midnight Climax came about as a sub-project under the larger MKULTRA tests, which attempted to research the efficacy of various "mind-control" methods. Midnight Climax, which took place in San Francisco and New York City, is notable for (probably) being the only time that prostitutes were officially placed on the CIA's payroll. The women were told to lure clients to specific CIA safehouses in order to drug them with various illegal substances, such as LSD, while researchers watched them from behind a one-way mirror. The victims, of course, had no idea that they were being monitored. The experiment lasted for about 12 years before being shut down in 1966.

The Dr. Saenger Experiments

Dr. Eugene Saenger, a notable early radiologist, came into the national spotlight in the mid-90's when the families of 45 of his cancer patients from the 60's sued him for not fully informing the patients of the medical experiments being performed on them. Saenger's patients were told that they would undergo radiation therapy in order to potentially cure their disease. What they were not told was that these doses of radiation would be administered to their entire bodies at largely unsafe levels. Family members described the patients as having skin that looked "like burned meat" toward the end of the experiment. Many of the victims died within months of the test's starting.

The Human Plutonium Tests

Researchers began testing the effects of plutonium on the human body in order to better understand the potential dangers of the Manhattan Project in the mid-40's. These plutonium administrations were done exclusively on terminally ill patients. Well, almost exclusively. Albert Stevens went to a San Francisco hospital to have a gastric ulcer checked out, and left thinking that he had untreatable stomach cancer. Since he was "doomed to die", doctors began injecting him with about 60 times the recommended maximum annual amount of radiation intake before discovering that he never actually had cancer. Though Stevens, amazingly, didn't die from the after-effects of the experiment, his doctors never told him that not only did he never have cancer, but that he survived the highest amount of radiation ever administered to a human.

The "Science Club" Observations

From 1946 to 1953, 73 debatably mentally-handicapped children at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Massachusetts were asked to join a special science club that would track how nutrients were ingested. They weren't told that these "nutrients" were actually a variety of radioisotopes. The kids, as well as their parents, merely thought that they were doing a fun experiment that involved eating lots of oatmeal, an attractive incentive since they were generally impoverished. Though none of the kids, now well into adulthood, have shown any negative effects stemming from their radiation exposure, the "science club" experiment raised a lot of eyebrows concerning medical ethics at the time.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

The Tuskegee Syphilis Project represents one of the longest running and infamously unethical experiments in US history. From 1932 to 1972 a group of 400 African American men in Macon County, Alabama, were told that they would receive free medical care in order to treat their "bad blood". They weren't informed that "bad blood" was actually code for syphilis and that their "free medical care" would only consist of treatments that were sure not to cure their disease. Even though penicillin was found to be an effective treatment for syphillis halfway through the study, scientists decided to continue the experiment anyway. This resulted in not only numerous deaths among the patients in the long-run, but the continual spread of syphilis in the community via their wives and children, who inevitably contracted the disease.

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