The American medical experiments that the Nazis used as a defense

You know you're doing something wrong when the Nazis use your behavior as proof that they weren't doing anything wrong. Or do you? The Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study became a focal point for debates over the ethics of experimenting on prisoners. Guess which side won.

The Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study was prompted by the need to get effective anti-malarial drugs to troops fighting in the Pacific during World War II. Animals were proving inadequate for testing purposes, but few people would volunteer to take untested drugs.


So prisoners were told they could potentially shave years off their sentences, earn privileges and get special treatment, if they took part in the study. But they also might die of a fatal heart attack, after experiencing a 106 degree fever.


Prisoners seemed to be an ideal model. Not only could their behavior be controlled, they could be monitored all day. And no one particularly cared if they died. The prisoners were promised that time spent working on the study could significantly reduce their sentences, and so 441 inmates signed a paper stating, "I assume all the risks of this experiment," and started in.

On the first day, they were to receive ten bites from a mosquito (some prisoners sharing the same mosquito). Mosquito wrangling was tough, and eventually no one was left at the lab except one doctor, the inmate being bitten, and Nathan Leopold - the "famous" criminal who, with the help of his friend Richard Loeb, kidnapped and killed a fourteen-year-old boy for the thrill of it. Leopold acted as a medical assistant and volunteer throughout the experiment.


Many of the inmates acted as assistants and volunteers in the experiment. They monitored each other, administered the anti-malarial drugs, and nursed each other when they experienced 106 degree malarial fevers. They had a harder time nursing each other through the heart attacks that one of the drugs caused. One inmate died, although at the time his death was attributed to natural causes. It's possible that the heart attack that eventually killed Leopold was a result of the drugs he took during the study.

Publicly, though, the study was a great success. It continued for nearly thirty years, at that prison alone, and articles about it in the 1940s praised the practicality of the study and the patriotism of the prisoners.


Then came the Nuremburg Trials. Doctors were put on trial for experimenting on interned prisoners at concentration camps. They argued that their experiments were no different from the prisoner studies. The Stateville Penitentiary study was specifically mentioned by the defense team for the Naizis.


The prosecution looked at the study in a completely different light, and argued that, among other things, the consent forms that the prisoners signed showed that the study was substantially different than the experiments conducted by the Nazis. The defense argued that the prison study was so like the experiments done at the camps that no one could condemn the Nazi doctors, and the prosecution argued that it was so unlike their experiments that the Nazi doctors had to be condemned.

Only the argument made by one side held up in court, and in American public opinion. Prison medical research flourished in the next three decades, in part because of a report published by the vice-president of the university system that had run the experiments. Public opinion was slow to turn, and it was only in the 1970s that medical experimentation on prisoners was deemed unethical, as prisoners were unable to give free consent.


Via NCBI, Making Willing Bodies.

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