A Human Experimenter Was Vice-President Of The American Cancer Society

Illustration for article titled A Human Experimenter Was Vice-President Of The American Cancer Society

A doctor who was once vice president of the The American Cancer Society turns out to have had a dark history. He twice experimented on human beings, injecting them with cancer cells. Learn about the human experimentation of Chester Southam.

In 1964, Doctor Chester Southam, a well-known cancer researcher, got elected vice-president of the American Cancer Society. The American Cancer Society was established in 1913, and publishes research, supports cancer patients, and looks into new treatment options. The Society's inclusion of Southam was not entirely inappropriate, as Southam had been researching cancer for over a decade, but the timing was a bit awkward. Southam was elected just after his license was reinstated after a temporary suspension for human experimentation.

In fact, a lot of Southam's research involved human experimentation. In 1952, he had injected inmates at the Ohio State Prison with cancer cells. Human experimentation on prisoners had gained popularity in the 1940s, and despite it being used as a defense for Nazis at the Nuremberg trials, was going strong in the United States in the 1950s.


It wasn't until the 1970s that experimentation on prisoners was banned, so that wasn't the reason Southam was a controversial choice for the society's vice presidency.

Southam's license was temporarily suspended when he admitted to injecting 22 people at Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital of Brooklyn with live cancer cells. The patients were dying of various diseases, but not cancer, and Southam believed that, despite their diseases, their bodies would reject the cancer cells as well as healthy people's bodies, and a great deal faster than cancer sufferers. He was right, and if he'd told his patients what he was injecting them with, he'd have been in the clear. Unfortunately for both the patients and Southam, he didn't want to "frighten" them, but didn't go as far as not injecting them with the substance that they would be afraid of.

Amazingly, the loss of the license, even for a brief time, was a step forward. In 1952, Southam worked for a medical organization that injected over 300 women with cancer cells, with relatively few repercussions. Still the quick step from injecting people with cancer cells without their knowledge to heading an organization that treats people with cancer is dramatic, and disconcerting.

Top Image: National Cancer Institute.

[Via Experimentation on Human Beings, A Virus's Debut in a Doctor's Syringe]


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Great piece. I didn't know about Southam.

I don't think most folks realize that scientific studies and clinical trials were enrolling vulnerable populations well into the 70s, Not just prisoners, but orphans and folks in mental health facilities.

ETA: Forgot to add, the Tuskegee experiments also lasted into the early 70s.

While these incidents are extremely unfortunate, it has lead to new ethical safeguards in clinical research. While the ethics of clinical research isn't perfect and can be enhanced, our current safeguards for trial participants is more robust than it once was.