5 Inhuman and Unethical Medical Studies That Actually Took Place

Behind every medical discovery lies its own unique story. Obviously, researchers cannot go around hospitals injecting patients with what they think is the cure to cancer.

These were 12 subsequent trials that decided the fate of war crimes against Nazi members.

From discovery to the pharmacy cupboards every medicine has to go through years and years of intensive studying to test for safety and effective dosage. Arguably one of the most important submission of a researcher is the ethical background of the study.

Not all medical studies are done for the greater good there are researchers who are so consumed by money, fame and/or ego that they can be very bias or worse, skip important stages and rush to clinical trials causing many patients to suffer further.

Fortunately, these studies have taught us to screen test every study to make sure that each study executed is for the benefit of the population.

Nowadays, every clinical study needs to pass a list of research principles to ensure the safety of the participant. These include how the participants’ data will be anonymised and kept hidden from the public as well as how the participant can withdraw safely if he/she wants to. Then the study must be approved by a committee board before it can start.

Although extremely unethical studies are long forgotten as they are lacking in numbers, every medical student must know of the dark past of medical research to remind themselves that they are studying to benefit mankind.

Here are 5 examples of unethical studies that took place in the past.

1. Monster Study


In 1939, psychologist Wendell Johnson led a research project on speech therapy in orphaned children.

The study aimed to test the theory that children become stutterers due to psychological pressure at a younger age. For 6 months, 11 children received positive speech therapy and were praised for improvement in speech.

Meanwhile, the remaining 11 were relentlessly belittled for any imperfection in their speeches.

Although none of the children became stutters but some of them retained speech problems to this very day. In order to protect Johnson’s reputation, the results of the study were not published but the university did send out an apology afterward.

In 2003, 3 of the participants, now in their 70s, filed a lawsuit against the researchers for lying and hiding results of the experiment and for not compensating for the damage.

2. Andrew Wakefield: Vaxxed

Arguably the most disgraced doctor of the medical world, Andrew Wakefield is the former doctor who coined the modern anti-vaccination movement with his unethical study.

His study in 1995 suggested a relationship between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccines. In 2016 he directed his own documentary titled Vaxxed, where he accused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of hiding the link between MMR vaccine and autism.

This struck fear in the western world and evidently so, as there was a significant drop in vaccination rates in the UK and US.

However, it was later found that he was incredibly biased in conducting the study. For example, autism was generalised as “behavioural symptoms” and was not properly diagnosed. Moreover, there is some evidence that some of the children who had early symptoms of autism were handpicked and placed in the intervention group where they could state that it was the vaccine that caused autism.

The release of this study, triggered researchers worldwide to re-study the safety of the MMR vaccine. A study in Japan showed that there is no correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. In 2013, Brian Deer investigated the fraudulent study and published his own television documentary titled “MMR: What they didn’t tell you”.

The infamous paper was finally withdrawn but the anti-vaccination movement it birthed still grows and some children are not receiving proper MMR vaccinations.

3. Nazi Human Experiments

After World War 2 the Nuremberg Trials occurred. These were 12 subsequent trials that decided the fate of war crimes against Nazi members. One of these war crimes included human experiments done without the consent of the participants. Here are a few of them:

  • Malaria Experiments

1200 prisoners were infected with malaria and were given drugs to test the effectiveness of each drug. About half of those infected died.

  • Blood Coagulation

Prisoners were used to experiment with a substance called Polygal, a blood-clotting agent which could potentially aid soldiers with gunshot wounds in the field. Subjects were given Polygal tablets and were shot in the neck or chest or were had limbs amputated without anaesthesia in order to mimic what the soldiers would go through in battle.

  • Bone, Muscle, and Nerve Transplant Experiments

In order to understand bone, muscle, and nerve regeneration and transplant, doctors removed sections of bones, muscles, and nerves from prisoners at the Ravensbrück concentration camp without anaesthesia.

Several of these prisoners were operated more than once. Also, they experimented the effectiveness of drugs by injected bacteria directly into the bone marrow.

The trials were so impactful that the Nuremberg Code was made afterward, a list of 10 ethical principles which must be fulfilled before a human medical experiment can proceed.

4. Alder Hey Tissue Scandal


In 1999 it was discovered that in the years 1988 to 1995 several hospitals in the UK, including the Alder Hey Children’s Hospital were illegally retaining organs from dead infants. More than 104,000 organs, tissues and even entire foetuses were stored which were taken without consent from the parents.

This was first speculated by Helen Rickard, whose daughter died during open-heart surgery. She questioned the excessive mortality rate of heart surgery and demanded medical records from the hospital.

She later learned that the hospital was keeping her daughter’s heart 4 years after she died.

Further investigation found that they were also removing thymus glands from live children during surgery and selling it to a pharmaceutical company.

The aftermath of this led to the Human Tissue Act 2004 which would “regulate the removal, storage, use and disposal of human bodies, organs and tissue.”

5. Tuskegee Syphilis Study

This study in 1932 recruited 600 sharecroppers of African American background in Alabama. They were told that it was a study on a new drug that would treat “Bad blood” which was a common non-medical term for illnesses like syphilis. With participation to this 6-month study, subjects were promised free health care, meals, and insurance.

It turns out that the experiment actually aimed to study the effects of untreated syphilis and went on for 40 years instead of 6 months. Throughout these 40 years, the researchers did not tell the subjects that they had syphilis and did not give proper treatment even when penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis in 1947.

The gruesome study finally hit the news in 1972, becoming the front page of the New York Times. The study was terminated soon afterward.

The aftermath caused Congress to pass the National Research Act, ensuring that all clinical trials have clear informed consent, communication of diagnosis, and accurate reporting of results.

To this day the Tuskegee Syphilis Study remains as “arguably the most infamous biomedical research study in U.S. history”.

These are few of many of the inhuman and unethical research carried out by medical professionals around the world. Yet it is not the end of these cruel practices as practices alike are being performed in many third world and poverty struck countries.


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