Horrible Histories: (Un)ethical Research

Ethics’ are defined as the “moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity” (Oxford University Press, 1997: 1), and are one of the most critical facets of any research. This comes as a result of a number of historical cases of unethical research that demonstrated the horrific consequences of such practices. These kinds of unethical studies eventually led to the creation of the Nuremburg Code, Belmont Report and the Institutional Review Board, which were formed to protect human subjects and establish codes of conduct for ethical research practices (Marsden & Melander, 2001: 1).

The origins of ethical research standards and its importance came about following the horrendous research practices committed by physicians working for the Nazi Party between 1933 and 1945. The two most notorious of these were Aribert Heim and Josef Mengele, respectively known as “Doctor Death” and the “Angel of Death” (Mekhennet & Kulish, 2009: 1; Levy, 2006: 242), however, there were fourteen other German physicians also found to have practiced horrifically unethical medical experiments on the prisoners of the Concentration and Extermination Camps operated by the Nazi Party during this period, including unnecessarily removing organs and limbs from prisoners without anaesthesia, directly injecting various chemicals into the heart to induce death, and even sewing two Romani twins together in a failed attempt to create conjoined twins (Heller, 2011: 85; Lifton, 1986: 347-353; Marsden & Melander: 2001: 1; Posner & Ware, 1986: 37). In 1947, as a result of the subsequent Nuremburg trials, the Nuremburg Code was written (Marsden & Melander, 2001: 1). This code was the first major acknowledgment of the importance of ethics in research, and was created so that research participants could be protected and the aforementioned Nazi physicians could be convicted for crimes against humanity. The Nuremburg Code also led to research standards requiring that subjects participate voluntarily and be informed of the risks of the research.

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Top left: Dr Mengele’s attempt at creating conjoined twins; they suffered for over a week before dying. Top right: Dr Mengele kept child twins in a separate area of Auschwitz so that he could perform his experiments on them. Bottom left: various experiments conducted by Drs Mengele and Heim and their gruesome results. Bottom right: Dr Mengele experimenting on the results of inhaled gas on a set of teenage twins at Auschwitz.

Other significant historical cases of unethical research include the Stanley Milgram’s experiment in 1961 involving “teachers” and “learners” and obedience toward authority, the US Public Health Service’s Tuskegee Syphilis Study in 1932 involving four hundred financially poor African American men who eventually either died or suffered from serious syphilis related conditions, the Willowbrook Study conducted between 1963 and 1966 on a group of mentally disabled children living at the Willowbrook State Hospital in Staten Island who were deliberately infected with hepatitis and studied as an assessment of the effects of gamma globulin as a therapeutic intervention as well as the history of the virus when left untreated, and Laud Humphreys’ mid-1960s “tearoom sex” study of impersonal homosexual acts committed by males in public restrooms (Marsden & Melander: 2001: 1-3).

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Top left: a diagram detailing Stanley Milgram’s study of obedience and authority. Top right: a group of the mentally disabled people living at Willowbrook State Hospital at the time of the hepatitis study. Bottom left: a newspaper headline after the details of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study were released. Bottom right: the front cover of Laud Humphrey’s ‘Tearoom Trade’, which was the final result of his “tearoom sex” study.

The importance of ethics in research cannot be determined by a legal document, a statistic or a great quote, but only by looking at the repercussions of unethical research for the subjects of these cases. These people had their fundamental human rights completely dismissed, were placed under unnecessary emotional and psychological stress, experienced no kind of beneficence or justice, had their private lives and personal information documented and analysed with their knowledge or informed consent, were victims of deception or concealment, and did not have any kind of autonomy or self-determination regarding their role in their respective research study. These people are the reason why ethical research, ethics codes such as the Nuremburg Code and Belmont Report, and regulatory bodies such as the Institution Review Board, are so important, so that past atrocities may hopefully never be repeated or, more realistically, may never go unpunished.

For some more info on any of these cases just check out these Youtube videos!
1. Nazi medical experiments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVkEnN8YpkU

2. Stanley Milgram’s obedience and authority study: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcvSNg0HZwk

3. Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Rg75zEVB1g

4. Willowbrook Hepatitis Study: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2aMlo_vJpE

5. Laud Humphrey’s “tearoom sex” study: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsFa10JFats

Reference List:

Heller, K 2011, ‘The Trials. Introduction: the indictments, biographical information, and the verdicts’, in The Nuremburg Military Tribunals and the Origins of International Criminal Law, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 85.

Levy, A 2006 (1993), Nazi Hunter: The Wiesenthal File (Revised 2002 ed.), Constable & Robinson, London, pp 242.

Lifton, R 1986, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Basic Books, New York, pp 347-353.

Marsden, S & Melander, M 2001, Historical Cases of Unethical Research, University of North Dakota Press, Grand Forks, pp 1-3.

Mekhennet, S & Kulish, N 2009, Uncovering Lost Path of the Most Wanted Nazi, The New York Times, New York, pp 1.

Oxford University Press 1997, ‘Ethics’, in Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 3, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 1.

Posner, G & Ware, J 1986, Mengele: The Complete Story, McGraw-Hill, New York, pp 37.

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About Tom Fogarty

I'm 20 years old. I live on the South Coast. I'm currently studying a double degree in Media and Communications at UOW. I'm in a hardcore band called Pariah. Thats about it, as far as I know anyway. View all posts by Tom Fogarty

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