Honoring Repulsive Behavior: Abominable Medical Experimenters    

Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free.

–From the Hippocratic Oath.

The current emphasis on dismantling monuments honoring Confederate leaders and fighters is important and long overdue. But those monuments are only a part of the history of white supremacy and American Exceptionalism that we are taught to admire and respect. White supremacy has been with us since the first Europeans set foot in the New World armed with the Doctrine of Discovery and other documents as licenses to steal, enslave and kill. Many of the monuments that honor those early white supremacists go largely unnoticed because they are so numerous and have become part of the fabric of our society.  Two examples are boulders honoring genocide. In Massachusetts there is Plymouth Rock, dated 1620 to mark the landing of the Pilgrims. The lesser-known and smaller boulder is in Inwood Hill Park in New York City. Known as Shorakapok or Shorakkopoch Rock, it commemorates the myth of the purchase of Manhattan Island from the indigenous Lenape people in 1626 by Peter Minuit.

Perhaps because I’m a healthcare worker, the monument that has always pissed me off the most is the one dedicated to the treachery of the medical doctor J. Marion Sims, located across the street from the New York Academy of Medicine on 103rd St. and Fifth Avenue The statue horrifies me, not only because Sims was such a cruel racist monster, but also because he became a template for many subsequent racist medical and research figures. Dr. Sims became a president of the American Medical Association in 1876, president of the International Medical Congress in 1877, and president of the American Gynecological Society in 1880.

Before I describe Sims’s experiments, it’s important to consider an ethical/political question.  Is it acceptable to abuse one person in order to help another? Is it acceptable to abuse a group of people who are considered less valuable in order to get information that will help another group of people who are considered more valuable? Is the abuse itself cancelled out by some good work done as a result of that abuse? If this is acceptable, who makes the decision of more or less valuable? Who creates the rating system? Can this exist in a democratic system?

For example, a brilliant student in medical school graduated cum laude for his outstanding work on the genetic structure contributing to cleft chin, cleft lips and cleft palate. It was considered valid scientific work. Later on, as a physician working in an active combat area, he was awarded the Social Welfare Decoration for treating wounded soldiers and civilians. This same man, Dr. Josef Mengele, earned the title “angel of death” for his infamous work in WWll German concentration camps. After WWll ended, the world did not believe that his earlier good work excused or even modified his barbarism in the camps. He was hunted but unfortunately drowned while swimming before he was captured and prosecuted. Now, more than 70 years after the end of WWll, is it conceivable that any sane person in Germany would want to erect a monument to Mengele’s earlier good work?

In the 1840s Dr. Sims developed an operation that primarily helped rich white women all over the world. He was determined to find a way to repair an injury called a vesico-vaginal fistula that sometimes occurs during childbirth.  It is a tear or opening between the bladder and the vagina. This tear leads to urine leaking out of the bladder into the vagina and out of the body uncontrollably. It is not hard to imagine how embarrassing and debilitating this condition could be.  Sims’s achievement might have been laudable except for two major shortcomings. First, the operation was available only to the very few wealthy women who suffered from this condition. Second, in order to develop and perfect his procedure, he used African- American slave women like laboratory rats.  In her marvelous book Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington described how slave women repeatedly had their genitalia cut up and sewed together by Dr. Sims as he worked to improve his technique. No anesthetic was used because it was believed then–and the belief still persists–that African Americans feel less pain than whites. The pain was so excruciating that the women had to be physically restrained while thrashing around and screaming in agony.

Sims’s monument on Fifth Avenue carries two statements. Written on the left:


On the right:


There is a Russian expression, “Paper will take anything written on it.” In this case, the medium is stone.

Since Sims’s experiments in the mid-19th century, there have been numerous unethical and barbaric human medical experiments in the US. The most infamous and probably the best known is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment that ran from 1932 to 1972. The US Public Health Service recruited 600 poor African-American men. Of that group, 399 had been diagnosed with syphilis earlier and 201 did not have the disease. The point of the experiment was to see the natural progression of syphilis as it ran its course untreated. Compensation for the participants in the study was meager.  The men were given meals and medical “care” (but not the antibiotic penicillin) and subsequent burial. Penicillin, discovered in 1928, was already in effective use against the bacterium that causes syphilis. Many men died, many suffered, 40 wives contracted the disease and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis. (Wikipedia and MicrobeWiki) How much syphilis was spread to partners other than wives and their children during casual sexual relations is hard if not impossible to know. The experiment was only stopped when information about the study was leaked to the press.

The Willowbrook State School located on Staten Island in New York City, was a state-supported facility for mentally challenged children. It was in operation from 1947 until 1987. Run by the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, it was built to house 4,000 patients but housed 6,000 at its peak. Not all its patients were children and the last thing it did was to educate anyone. It was a filthy, understaffed shit hole. After touring the institution in 1965 then-Senator Robert Kennedy declared Willowbrook a “snake pit.” He saw children living in “filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo” (Willowbrook State School; Atlas Obscura). He followed up his visit with a call for reform followed by nothing. In 1972 a recently fired Willowbrook doctor who wanted to reveal the conditions at the “school” called journalist Geraldo Rivera and gave him the key to Building 6. “The doctor had warned me that it would be bad … it was horrible,” said Rivera of the conditions he witnessed upon entering the facility. Filming the actual conditions with the residents as background, Rivera did everything he could to describe the horror before him. “This is what it looked like, this is what it sounded like. But how can I tell you about the way it smelled? It smelled of filth, it smelled of disease, and it smelled of death” (Dalton Brown, Rooted in Rights, the Horrifying Truth Uncovered: Willowbrook State School, October 15, 2014).

Not only were the conditions worthy of a Charles Dickens novel, Willowbrook was also the location of studies that lasted from 1956 to 1970. Willowbrook’s medical  staff called in Dr. Saul Krugman for help because of the epidemic levels in children and staff of what turned out to be hepatitis A. Rather than clean up the snake pit and establish human living conditions as a start, Krugman decided to experiment on the residents. Like the Tuskegee experiment, the progression of the disease was monitored. Noted vaccinologist Maurice Hilleman called the experiments “the most unethical medical experiments ever performed on children in the United States.” Bioethicist Art Caplan stated that “The Willowbrook studies were a turning point in how we thought about medical experiments on retarded children… Children inoculated with hepatitis virus had no chance to benefit from the procedure—only the chance to be harmed.” (Paul A. Offit, “Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases,” in Wikipedia).

Offit described Krugman’s studies as follows: Krugman found that hepatitis developed in 90 percent of children admitted to Willowbrook soon after their arrival. Although it was known that hepatitis was caused by a virus, it wasn’t known how hepatitis virus spread, whether it could be prevented, or how many types of viruses caused the disease. Krugman used the children of Willowbrook to answer those questions. One of his studies involved feeding live hepatitis virus to sixty healthy children. Krugman watched as their skin and eyes turned yellow and their livers got bigger. He watched them vomit and refuse to eat. All the children fed hepatitis virus became ill, some severely. Krugman reasoned that it was justifiable to inoculate retarded children at Willowbrook with hepatitis virus because most of them would get hepatitis anyway. But by purposefully giving the children hepatitis, Krugman increased that chance to 100 percent.I don’t know how Krugman selected his victims, but I do know that his technique guaranteed that all the children he selected would get sick rather than just 90 percent. I also don’t know whether the children he selected were part of the 10 [1]percent of patients who wouldn’t have gotten sick. Was part of his selection process based on race?

Soon after the Civil War ended in 1865 and slavery as a legal enterprise was eliminated, convict leasing began. On May 11, 1868, the governor of Georgia “leased 100 black prisoners to Georgia and Alabama Railroad for $2500 per year; 16 prisoners die in the first year alone” (Equal Justice Initiative calendar, 2017).  The governor was able to do that because the Confederacy was defeated militarily but not socially. The number of Confederate monuments, highways, streets and bridges  attest to that. Its slaveocracy was never dismantled; it was merely readjusted to get around the Constitution. Edwin Black’s book Slavery by Another Name describes in detail how convict leasing was administered and names many corporations that profited from the new system. In 2010, Alabama prison officials banned the book from its facilities (EJI calendar 2017).  Just like the monuments honoring the myth of the Confederacy, convict leasing did not disappear. It was just reorganized.

How much more revolting can our monumental white supremacy and “compassionate” American Exceptionalism get? The experiments at Holmesburg  Prison in Philadelphia put a new twist on the convict-leasing program. This time the prison became the production center. The prisoners didn’t have to go anywhere. It’s a great way for corporations to save on rent, security and transportation costs. The human experimental laboratories at Holmesburg were reproduced in prisons all over the US from the 1950s to the 1970s. In his book Acres of Skin, Allen M. Hornblum describes the extent of the experiments, the institutions involved and the shameful treatment of the men who were paid a paltry sum to take part. Cosmetics were tested that caused burns on inmates’ skin. Shampoo was tested that made inmates’ hair fall out. Liquid diets were tested, radioactive isotope experiments were conducted and LSD tests made some inmates crazy. The prison was used like a variety store for experiments on human guinea pigs.  The inmates had no idea of the long-range impact on what they were poorly paid to do. It is questionable whether even researcher Dr. Albert M. Kligman knew what was going to happen to the people involved. However, the researchers weren’t about to stop the experiments. Was Holmesburg a harbinger of our current system of mass incarceration and “volunteer” inmate labor?

After WWll, the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals took place. Some of those war criminals were medical doctors who took part in many horrifying experiments. Initially, their collective defense was: “Why are you picking on us? The Americans have been experimenting on human beings in a similar way for a long time.” Of course their defense was rejected, even though it was an accurate observation.  One of the doctors put on trial was Herta Oberheuser, a dermatologist like Dr. Albert M. Kligman of Holmesburg prison infamy. Herta Oberheuser worked in the Ravensbruck concentration camp from 1940 to 1943. She experimented on as many as 74 Polish women inmates. In one of the experiments, a wound was made in the victim’s leg. Then one or several pathogenic bacteria were introduced into the wound.  Finally, one of the drugs being tested for its potential efficacy in fighting the bacteria was given to the victim. Pain, disfigurement and death were some of the unwanted “side effects” that the women experienced.

Herta Oberheuser was found guilty in Nuremberg and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The sentence was reduced to 10 years, and she was ultimately released for good behavior in 1952 after 5 years. She attempted to resume her medical practice but was forbidden to do so. Imagine that! (Taken from Dorner Klaus and other sources, The Nuremberg Medical Trial, 1946/47: guide to the microfiche-edition, K. G. Saur, 2001; “Doctor Trials, WWII Remembered,” oocities.org). After the Nuremberg doctors’ trials, a 10-point medical code of conduct was drawn up called the “Nuremberg Code.” It was initially rejected by the American Medical Association but was finally accepted by the Association 20 years later. Did American Exceptionalism have anything to do with the 20-year delay? Today along with the Hippocratic Oath, it is considered the foundation of medical ethics. (Michael R. Marus, “The Nuremberg Doctor’s Trial in Historical Context).

Completely by accident, I came across one of the most bizarre human experiments I ever read about. The New York Times January 1, 1998, headline read: “Settlement Reached in Suit Over Radioactive Oatmeal Experiment.” As a nutritionist, I was intrigued, even though I knew that corporate food manufacturers would stop at nothing to get a greater market share and more profits. With the help of MIT, the Quaker Oats Company fed over 100 boys at the Fernald School in Waltham, MA, radioactive oatmeal in the 1940s and 1950s. “The diet was part of an experiment to prove that the nutrients in Quaker oatmeal travel throughout the body” as well as the nutrients in a competitor’s cereal (op cit, New York Times). Nutrients are easily traced when they are made radioactive.

According to the Atlas Obscura, the Fernald School, built in 1888 was originally called “The Massachusetts School for the Feebleminded.” It was renamed after the school’s third superintendent, Walter E. Fernald, who was an advocate of the eugenics movement. The New York Times reported that about 30 people who were still around in 1998 would share reparations of $ 1.85 million, about $60,000 each. Like Willowbrook, this school could be right out of a 19th-century horror story.

Honoring barbarians and the barbarous acts they committed with various sorts of monuments is an invitation to future generations to commit similar acts with similar justifications. Every deed is a link in a chain that connects the past with the present. The twisted teaching that justified earlier atrocities will become accepted as normal and repeated by each new generation. However, if the atrocity is condemned, the message of condemnation will change the teaching and conduct of later generations. The Nuremberg Trials’ condemnation of Herta Oberheuser sent a clear message to the world. “If you do this sort of thing and get caught you will pay a dear price.” On the other hand, lavish praise and awards were heaped on J. Marion Sims, despite the torture he used to accomplish his ends. Dr. Albert M. Kligman of the Holmesburg Prison experiments was honored with a whimsical piece in a 1955 Life magazine. Under a picture of Kligman picking some leaves titled “The Poison Ivy Picker of Pennypack Park.” This short piece and accompanying photo focus on his poison ivy experiments at Holmesburg, not the more dangerous experiments he conducted. (Op cit Hornblum).  In 1951, Kligman’s unethical experiments on “congenital mental defectives” at a state institution was “presented at the 12th annual meeting of the Society for Investigative Dermatologists.” He was not condemned but lavishly praised by a leader in the field, Dr. Frederick Deforest Weidman, “for selecting an ‘ideal,’ that is human test population… Dr. Weidman was Emeritus Professor of Research in Dermatology and Mycology at the University of Pennsylvania. He was also a former president of the American Dermatological Association and vice president of the American Board of Dermatology and Syphilology.” (Op cit Hornblum).

Unlike Dr. Herta Oberheuser, none of the doctors in the American experiments went to jail. Despite their horrific acts, many had supporters in the medical community and many received honors. To this day, many doctors believe that African Americans feel less pain than whites because they are biologically different and consequently need less care for their pain.*

Taking down monuments, changing the names of institutions and infrastructure and rejecting the praise that has been heaped on these “heroes” is critical, but although difficult, it’s the easiest step we have to take. The harder job will be to undo the ideology that justified creating the monuments. Until the law of the land is no longer just another commodity to be sold to the highest bidder, those who own the law will figure out a way to undermine and reverse our efforts. They will privatize the very air we breathe to stop us–if we let them.


1-Jee-Lyn Garcia J, Sharif MZ, “Black Lives Matter: A Commentary on Racism and Public Health,” American Journal of Public Health, August, 2015;

2-Kelly M. Hoffman, Sophie Trawalter, Jordan R. Axt an d M. Norman Oliver, “Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological difference between blacks and whites,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, April 4, 2016;

3– Rachel R. Hardeman, PhD, MPH, Eduardo M. Medina, MD, MPH, and Katy B. Kozhimannil, PhD, MPA, “Dismantling Structural Racism, Supporting Black Lives and Achieving Health Equity: Our Role” New England Journal of Medicine, October 12, 2016).