The history of medicine is full of weird and appalling experiments. Many went nowhere. But a few of the most horrifying resulted in drugs, tests, or devices that are still in use today. Here’s a look at four unethical experiments that actually did have a positive impact on medicine — though we’re not arguing that the ends justified the means.
The Hepatitis B vaccine
When it comes to science that makes you squeamish, Dr. Saul Krugman wins the prize. Hepatitis was running rampant in a Staten Island school for children with intellectual disabilities. To better understand the disease, Krugman prepared milkshakes laced with infected feces, and fed them to new arrivals. Yup, you read that right. He didn’t just deliberately infect kids with a potentially dangerous disease; he did it by slipping human waste in their drinks.
Those experiments from 1963 to 1966 led to the discovery that Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B are two different viruses — and allowed for the development of the Hepatitis B vaccine. Krugman, a pediatrician, later tried to justify his actions by saying he got consent from the parents — though the consent form didn’t spell out exactly what the experiments entailed.
A tool for gynecological exams
Every gynecologist today uses the speculum, a device that holds open the vagina so physicians can peer inside. Nowadays, there are a few different models, but one of the most widespread was invented by Dr. James Marion Sims — a 19th century gynecologist who kept slaves as test subjects at his hospital in Montgomery, Alabama. His inspiration for the device was a spoon he used to perform a crude exam on his slave Betsey. “Introducing the bent handle of the spoon I saw everything …” Sims wrote in his memoir.
Sims also tried out new surgical procedures on slaves. One woman, named Anarcha, had to undergo as many as 30 operations — all without anesthetic.
Electrical brain stimulation
Sending an electrical current to a certain area of the brain can have all kinds of effects, from making you move your arm to possibly alleviating chronic pain. Neurologists are now looking into the therapeutic possibilities of using electricity as therapy for some mental illnesses.
But the idea of electrical brain stimulation was first tested in humans by Dr. Robert Bartholow at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati. The hospital’s name does not seem apt in this case.
In 1874, Bartholow stuck a needle coursing with electric current directly onto a young woman’s brain. The woman’s name was Mary Rafferty, and she had come into the hospital with an ulcer that had worn a hole in her skull. She may have consented to the experiments, but it’s hard to believe she knew what she was getting into. After she “complained of a very strong and unpleasant feeling of tingling in both right extremities,” Bartholow increased the current until she convulsed and lost consciousness. Three days later, after yet more tests, Rafferty died.
A lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, is used collect liquid that circulates around your brain and spinal cord. The doctor inserts a needle between your vertebrae to draw out the fluid, which can then be tested for evidence of multiple sclerosis, meningitis, and some kinds of cancer.
In the United States, one of the first lumbar punctures was performed on an unsuspecting 2-year-old in 1895, who reacted by “throwing herself about the bed, clutching at her hair, and giving vent to short cries.”
The doctor who did the puncture, Dr. Arthur Howard Wentworth, was trying to prove the procedure was safe. He went on to try it on 29 other infants and toddlers at Boston Children’s Hospital — without explaining the procedure to their mothers or asking their permission.