10 Inhumane Experiments That Wound Up Helping Society


No one wants to imagine Mickey Mouse being used for medical research, but it’s downright disturbing to think that the little kids watching Mickey Mouse were once the guinea pigs themselves. In this day and age, we are pretty fortunate to be able to protest experiments on animals and stem cells since much more horrifying tests have been performed on living human beings throughout history. Even though the world condemns the evil and unethical experiments that have taken place, a few of these tests do have a bit of a silver lining. Take a look at the positive impact some of this research has had, and thank your lucky stars you haven’t been sacrificed in the name of science — yet.

  1. Injecting boy with cowpox pus

    At the end of the 18th century, smallpox was responsible for killing 400,000 people per year in Europe alone, and its profile only continued to rise during the next century. Children were particularly at risk of dying from the illness that covered your body in a blistery rash. Taking a cue from an old wives’ tale that milkmaids never got smallpox because they normally contracted cowpox, which was very mild in comparison, Edward Jenner injected an 8-year-old boy (his gardener’s son) with pus from a cowpox pustule. When he tried to give the boy smallpox, it didn’t work. Jenner tested the idea on a few other children before giving it the name “vaccine” after the Latin word for cow. Smallpox has since been eradicated from the world thanks to the ill-advised experiment by Jenner. Let’s hope that gardener at least got a nice raise.

  2. Making kids stutter

    Children who develop a stutter are normally faced with ridicule, depression, and lonely lives, especially in the days before effective therapy treatments were discovered. One leader in the speech therapy field thought he had figured out what makes people stutter and wanted to make sure. Wendell Johnson of Kansas decided to test his theory, with the help of graduate student Mary Tudor, by using orphans as guinea pigs. Children went to therapy with Tudor each week thinking they were being helped with their language; in reality, Tudor was using methods that coincided with Johnson’s theory to make the kids’ speech deteriorate dramatically. Even after she left, the orphans who had taken part found their language getting worse and worse — and they never recovered. Out of their suffering, though, Johnson’s theory that stuttering develops and worsens when children are criticized for their language mistakes was confirmed, and effective methods for improving stutters were developed.

  3. Giving prisoners authority over others

    This psychological experiment wasn’t physically harmful, but it definitely caused emotional distress for both those involved and anyone who hears about the depravity of human nature. Volunteers were paid $15 to take part in the study, and the most mentally stable were chosen to participate. Twenty-four men were brought in to create a prison situation at Stanford University, with half being randomly selected as guards and half as inmates. The guards wore uniforms and had wooden batons while the prisoners wore smocks with no underwear and lived in bare conditions for the proposed two weeks of the experiment. The guards quickly began humiliating the prisoners. They confiscated mattresses, stripped prisoners, and subjected them to sexual humiliation — just because they could. The prisoners themselves became institutionalized and didn’t want to quit early or accept newcomers in their ranks. The experiment was ended early after just six days but provided a valuable insight into the psychological impact of prison roles, knowledge that has been used to avoid situations like those seen at Abu Ghraib.

  4. Performing surgeries without anesthesia

    Often billed as the father of gynecology, J. Marion Sims made some major contributions to the medical field of lady-parts, such as developing ways to repair vesicovaginal fistulas. It’s probably as complicated as it sounds. Sims made these valuable discoveries, however, at the expense of many slave women in the 1840s. The vesicovaginal fistula is normally the result of a traumatic labor (though anyone who’s seen The Miracle of Life could probably argue that all labors are traumatic), and women who developed it were stigmatized in that century. The experimental surgeries themselves may not have been inhumane since he did eventually fix the problem in the women, but Sims opted to perform them without any anesthesia even though it was available at the time. He operated on one of the women 30 times, and she could feel it all. Sims eventually moved on to operating on white women (with anesthesia, though) after he had the surgery perfected and created several other procedures and tools that furthered the practice of gynecology.

  5. Infecting Guatemalans with syphilis

    In the 1940s, penicillin was a new antibiotic with hundreds of potential uses. Doctors just had to discover what it could be used to treat. Syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases were definite possibilities on the list, so in order to figure out if penicillin would work on them, U.S. Public Health Service researchers, led by Dr. John Cutler, found some cases to test it on. More accurately, they created the cases to test it on. The researchers exposed 1,300 Guatemalan sex workers, prisoners, and mental health patients to syphilis, gonorrhea, or chancroid, and about 700 were infected. The penicillin did cure most of the cases, a breakthrough for the treatment of STDs, but some records indicate that as many as 80 people died.

  1. Giving people yellow fever

    The number of Americans who died during the Spanish-American War from military causes was 13 times less than the number who were killed by yellow fever. Soldiers had never encountered the disease before they arrived in Cuba so they lacked any kind of immunity to it. Around the turn of the 20th century, no one was certain how the disease was spread, but it had been recently suggested it might be transmitted by mosquitos, a method unheard of before the time. Walter Reed, an Army physician, conducted several experiments to determine the source of infection, and volunteers were paid extra if they contracted the illness. Test subjects were made to sleep on unwashed sheets and wear the clothing of yellow fever victims from a hospital, most of them still covered with the black vomit that goes with the disease. Some of Reed’s researchers volunteered themselves to test the mosquito theory, which they believed to be false, but one of them ended up dying as a result. Thus, the first mosquito-transmitted disease was discovered and scientists could start figuring out ways to prevent it.

  2. Killing babies with tuberculosis

    The purpose of the experiment obviously wasn’t to kill the infant test subjects, but that’s what happened when a German pediatrician injected 250 babies with the BCG vaccine. Tuberculosis has been a common killer throughout much of history. If you were ever asked in a history class how an important figure died, tuberculosis was normally a pretty good guess. Finding a treatment for the deadly disease was a top priority for physicians, and several tests had been run with the developing BCG vaccine, which comes from cow TB. In Lubeck, Germany, a doctor gave the vaccine to 250 infants, essentially giving them mild tuberculosis. Seventy-five of them died, raising questions about whether the vaccine was safe or if it had been administered incorrectly. Research into the tragedy helped the world’s doctors better understand how TB infects the body and how to safeguard against future problems with vaccination. Today, tuberculosis is still common in some parts of the world, but in other areas, it has almost disappeared.

  3. Infecting prisoners with cholera and the plague

    Prisoners are often targeted by medical researchers because they are kept in controlled environments and scientists can be sure that conditions are fulfilled exactly as they want them to be. This lack of control over their own surroundings, though, has made inmates subject to some of the most inhumane treatment in the name of science. In 1906, Dr. Richard Strong was doing studies on cholera, so he injected 24 Filipino prisoners with the disease. What he didn’t know is that his cholera had been contaminated with plague bacteria. He ordered the men to form a line and then gave them the diseases without telling them what he was doing. More than half of the guys died. Authorities in the Philippines investigated the practices of the researcher and criticized him for not getting informed consent before performing the experiment. Though Strong was ultimately exonerated, the condemnation of using uninformed test subjects was the first step toward the strict rules for research we have today.

  4. Stuffing radium in kids’ noses

    When kids have ear problems or trouble breathing through their noses, they often have their adenoid glands removed. In the middle of the 20th century, doctors thought they had found a better way to treat these symptoms than taking out the glands completely. Instead, they would put rods containing radium into the noses of patients to shrink the tissue in the cavity behind your nose. In the years around 1950, researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital gave 582 third-graders the treatment to see the long-term effects of radium on hearing loss. Of course, this meant putting a radioactive compound inside the children, near their brains and other important organs. Though it hasn’t been determined yet whether the children have an increased risk of cancer, more definitive results should be available in the next 10 years or so, giving scientists a more thorough knowledge on the effects of radiation.

  5. Testing whether humans will do awful things if you tell them to

    Spoiler: they will. The now-famous experiment performed by Stanley Milgram tested how far humans will push their morals just to do what they’re told. The test subjects were told to administer a shock to a test subject in a separate room every time that person got an answer wrong. The strength of the shock would increase after each wrong answer. The person who was supposed to be receiving the shocks was actually an accomplice of the researcher and would scream in pain and complain about a heart condition as the voltage went higher. When the test subject would ask if they should keep going, the researcher would tell them to continue. A shocking 65% of people, not under any threat of punishment, continued to give the shocks to the maximum voltage. The experiment gave some perspective on those Nazis who said they were just doing what they were told, and hopefully will help us develop strategies to avoid falling into a situation like that ever again.