Unethical human experiments have taken place throughout history. But as mankind evolved, that sort of behavior gradually disappeared.
Or so we thought.
You see, the world we live in today is shaped by science, and most of those who carry out the experiments on which progress is based are bound by strict ethical codes.
We don’t like to think that cruel human experiments exist in the world we know today.
However, the truth is, even now, it is entirely possible for scientists and medical professionals to convince themselves that almost any amount of suffering and pain is morally justifiable if carried out in the name of scientific advancement and progress.
In other words, for the greater good.
Here are 16 particularly shameful instances of unethical human experiments in history!
1: Frederick the Great – What Language Should We Speak?
Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, was something of a pioneer for his time. He was interested in science and discovery, spoke many languages, and managed to involve himself in the crusades without indulging in too much in the way of hatred of his enemies.
However, his scientific work was very much a product of that time period – he lived from 1194 to 1250 – and by modern standards would be considered astoundingly cruel.
Much of what we know about Fred’s attempts to understand the world comes from an Italian monk who couldn’t stand the man, so it’s possible that a large pinch of salt should be added to his accounts.
To discover more about the soul, he is said to have locked a man in a barrel. That man died, of course, but that was the point.
A small hole in his prison was supposed to allow his soul to fly out to be observed.
Another famous case saw two prisoners fed the same meal before being sent out on a hunt and to bed.
The purpose of the experiment was to see which activity best-aided digestion, the means for finding out was to disembowel both men and take a look.
Perhaps the most famous of Frederick’s experiments was his search for the “natural language” of humanity and God’s language.
To discover this, he started to lock up children with no human contact, allowing them to be fed and washed and so on but with no interaction with their wet nurses or foster parents.
The experiment failed – according to our monk – because the children suffered such misery.
#2: Nazi Hypothermia Experiment
I’m sure you’re hardly surprised to find the Nazis on this list. The whole collection of inhuman experiments could be filled with what they got up to, usually using subjects they considered racially inferior and thus utterly expendable in the service of the master race.
Of these experiments, one of the nastiest is the attempt to help German pilots to overcome hypothermia.
Working in concentration camps, Nazi doctors subjected prisoners either to hours in freezing water or to simply standing, naked, in the bitterly cold night air.
Soviet prisoners were a favorite, as the German army had experienced firsthand the brutal Russian winter during the Battle of Stalingrad. and they feared that their opponents might have been born to better withstand the cold.
Measurements were taken, and 100 people died in the process, all so that the SS’s top medical man at Dachau could make a report at a 1942 conference on the problem.
To the Nazis, medical experiments on living subjects were entirely within the ethics of their doctrine.
After the war, an exceptional Doctors’ Trial was held as part of the Nuremberg process, and 23 medical men were tried, and seven of them were sentenced to death.
If you have a strong stomach and a high tolerance for man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, read on to find out much more about this evil period in medical history.
#3: General Shirō Ishii and the Japanese Army’s Unit 731
Like the Nazis, the Japanese developed a nationalism based on racial superiority to see them try to grab the empire they believed they deserved during World War II.
Some Japanese scientists served the cause with a series of vile experiments on living subjects as research into biological weapons, or any other military projects that struck their fancy.
Among the subjects were those who fought against the Japanese imperial forces, Japanese criminals, and those arrested for “suspicious activities,” which reportedly included the old, the very young, and pregnant women.
China was considered a particularly fertile ground for this work. During World War II, the Japanese used Chinese captives for experiments.
The Japanese tested germ warfare weapons on the Chinese and looked for a cure for gangrene. Chinese POWs were infected with diseases, then cut up without an anesthetic to see how the condition developed.
Limbs were cut off in the same way or allowed to develop gangrene to see how flesh rotted and killed thousands of prisoners of war in the process.
.Epidemics started by the unit are believed to have killed about 400,000 Chinese civilians.
Weapons were also tested on live human subjects. POWs were buried alive, injected with seawater, starved to death, and frozen.
The man responsible for Unit 731, Dr. Shirō Ishii, managed to trade his experimental data for immunity from prosecution after the war, and it is alleged he went to work on the American biological warfare program.
He also converted to Christianity, and possibly ran a clinic in Japan offering free medical treatment.
#4: Dr. John Money and the Sex Change Experiment of David Reimer
The appalling experimenting of David Reimer was begun by accident. But the doctor who inflicted an unwanted sex change on him saw his patient not as a child in need of help, but as an experimental subject who might finally be able to help Dr. John Money answer one of life’s biggest questions- “nature versus nurture”, and its role in adolescent development.
David Reimer was a twin and, at just eight months, was sent to be circumcised. The operation went horribly wrong, and the boy’s penis was pretty much cut off.
Hoping to help their son, David’s parents took him to an expert in sexual identity called Dr. John Money.
Dr. Money told them to go through a sex-change operation and raise their son as a daughter.
Believing the noted physician’s advice, they went ahead. But Dr. Money saw David as insight into whether sexual identity came from genetics or surroundings – and an identical twin brother made him an ideal test subject.
David, predictably, had a miserable childhood. He was never truly able to accept that he wasn’t a boy.
At the same time, Dr. Money published papers on his “experiment,” which involved getting the twins to engage in sexual play from around the age of seven (he has also conducted research that suggests that not all pedophilia is terrible, but that’s another story).
#5: The Totskoye Nuclear Exercise
Nuclear weapons had shown their destructive potential spectacularly with the ending of World War II in Japan, and following the end of the war, both the Soviet Union and the United States had nuclear arsenals at their disposal before long.
But how did the two superpowers learn more about these weapons and how to fight against them?
In 1954, in the Soviet Union, the answer was a massive experiment in which 45,000 men were sent to march through the area under a nuclear explosion.
The bomb used was about as powerful as both of those dropped on Japan, and the lucky village around which they were tested was Totskoye. The bomb blew up just 350 meters above the ground and only 8 miles from the village.
Then the troops were sent in.
The soldiers were told it was a routine training exercise, and that the explosion was a mock nuclear blast. They presumably didn’t notice that the man from the ministry, Georgy Zhukov, was ensconced in an underground bunker during the exercise.
Some locals were offered evacuation, but most were just left to get on with it.
Anyone who fell ill after the exercise found that their medical records had mysteriously vanished as soon as they arrived at the hospital.
The Totskoye nuclear exercise was hushed up for years, really only coming to light in the 1990s. Even today, journalists who try to film in the area are routinely harassed by the local police.
#6: The Soviet Poison Lab (AKA Laboratory 1)
Known as Kamera, or “The Chamber”, Laboratory 1 was where the Soviet secret services developed the poisons, some of which were used in assassinations of opponents of the regime.
Testing was carried out on political prisoners and was headed by Grigory Mairanovsky.
The facility was founded in 1921 and is still in operation – although under different names – today.
The Soviet Union’s secret services were, to put it mildly, not very friendly, and the chief purpose of their testing laboratory was to find things that could kill people and leave no trace.
The people who commissioned the testing refused to use anything that hadn’t already been tested on living subjects.
Among the poisons used were curare (apparently used to murder American spy Cy Oggins), and mustard gas, but anything would do.
To get a balanced picture of the various potions’ effects, the testers made sure they got a good selection of ages and sizes amidst their subjects.
The people selected to be killed were fed – a rarity in the Soviet Gulag system – and told they were taking medication.
Usually, they were dead within 15 minutes.
In his trial, Lavrenty Beria, the notorious head of Stalin’s secret police, defended his role in the laboratory system by saying while he’d given the orders for the experiments to go ahead, he hadn’t come up with the idea himself.
Among those who fell victim to the laboratory’s work on the broader world was Georgi Markov, a victim of the famous London umbrella killing.
#7: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment
Most of our vile experiments have been carried out by totalitarian states and other unaccountable forces. Still, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was the work of the US Public Health Service and went on for 40 years from 1932.
In a very nasty piece of trickery, hundreds of sharecroppers in Alabama were used as human guinea pigs to see how syphilis developed when the doctors involved knew perfectly well that a few doses of penicillin would have sorted out their disease.
This discovery was made in the 1940s after the study had started, but the research went ahead, and the organizers kept information about the new cure from their subjects.
It was only after the press got hold of it that the experiment was stopped. The results were 28 syphilis deaths, 100 dead from complications, 40 infected wives, and 19 children born with the disease – almost all entirely preventable.
#8: Dr. Josef Mengele’s Nazi Experiments on Twins
Josef Mengele was a doctor who worked at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. His particular interest was in how he could guarantee that Aryan mothers could give birth to twins reliably.
Mengele selected twins coming off the trains at Auschwitz, sending their mothers to their deaths in the gas chambers. Once the children were in his care, he did a lot of nasty things, including:
- Putting drops in childrens’ eyes to see if he could turn them blue or green. This frequently blinded them.
- Torturing one twin in one room to see if the other knew their twin could telepathically tell the other was in pain
- Removing reproductive organs without the use of anesthesia.
Thousands of children were mutilated or tortured, and many died in his care.
#9: The Hofling Hospital Experiment
In 1966, a psychiatrist called Charles K Hofling did an experiment to see whether nurses would take orders from a doctor unquestioningly.
The nurses would receive a call from a doctor giving them orders to give patients a dose of 20mg of a fictitious drug to a patient, even though its label said that 10mg was the maximum safe dose.
Shockingly, Hofling found that 21 out of 22 nurses in the experiment would do exactly as they were told without question.
#10: Dr. Henry Cotton’s Surgical Bacteriology to Treat Mental Illness
In 1907, Dr. Henry Cotton, the unconventional director of an asylum for the mentally ill in Trenton, New Jersey thought that mental illness was caused by different parts of the body going wrong.
Often (without the consent of his patients) Dr. Henry Cotton removed teeth, tonsils, and other parts of his inmates’ bodies in an attempt to cure their mental problems.
#11: Dr. Lauretta Bender’s ECT and LSD Schizophrenia Experiments
A psychologist named Dr. Lauretta Bender had a theory that she could cure what was termed childhood schizophrenia in the 1940s.
Lauretta Bender administered electric shocks to the children’s brains before giving them an adult-sized dose of the psychedelic drug LSD.
She claimed great success with the experiments, though for some reason (!) this wasn’t carried out into the wider child and adolescent psychiatric treatment…
#12: Guatamala Syphilis Experiment
The 1940s had a lot of weird science going on! In another experiment to see if penicillin could cure the sexually transmitted disease syphilis, American scientists paid prostitutes to spread the disease in Guatemala.
Uncovered as recently as 2010, it is estimated that 1300 Guatemalans had been infected in the experiment.
#13: Project MK Ultra
The CIA got up to a lot of dirty tricks since it was first set up. For 20 years, the Central Intelligence Agency ran a medical program called MK Ultra, where they tried to find chemicals to control people’s minds.
The CIA had a range of goals with the program, which included giving foreign spies drugs to make them confess to what they had done, as well as chemicals that made people completely dependent on another and would do exactly what the other person told them to do.
Another experiment was to see if they could make enemy soldiers confused and disoriented without actually realizing they had been sprayed with the chemical.
The program was stopped in 1973. It isn’t known how many people were experimented on.
#14: The British Soldiers on LSD Experiment
In 2006, the British spy agency MI6 paid out thousands of pounds in compensation to former soldiers, sailors, and airmen they had given weapons-grade LSD to without the military men knowing in the 1950s.
This came to light, and MI6 apologized for their sneaky psychedelic experiments.
#15: Porton Down’s Nerve Gas Testing on British Soldiers
In another set of experiments, the British government got soldiers to volunteer to be tested for what the soldiers were told was a “cure for the common cold.”
In fact, the hapless soldiers were videotaped while having chemical weapons tested on them, including Sarin nerve gas at the chemical warfare establishment in Porton Down, Hampshire.
Though most of them survived (with health problems), in one case, a soldier was killed. The inquest held in 2004 found that 23 additional servicemen were exposed to the nerve gas after that death.
#16: TGN1412 “Elephant Man” Trial
With all the mistakes of the past, there are a lot of regulations on how medical experiments are carried out. Even so, they still go very wrong from time to time.
In 2007, after animal studies showed that the chemical TGN1412 was safe, they gave human subjects a dose containing 1/500th the amount they had tested on animals.
4 of the patients became seriously ill, displaying severe symptoms like projectile vomiting, uncontrollable bowel movements, and swelling of body parts.
It was later revealed that the patients were left with various life-threatening immune system deficiencies with multiple organ failure.
Even years later, they still suffer the negative health effects from the TGN412 trial.