In an article released this weekend, Associated Press reporter Mike Stobbe details new revelations about medical experiments conducted decades ago by the U.S. government.
Most of the experiments are 40 to 80 years old, and included giving hepatitis to mental patients in Connecticut, squirting a pandemic flu virus up the noses of prisoners in Maryland, and injecting cancer cells into chronically ill people at a New York hospital. Stobbe and his researchers uncovered 40 ethically dubious experiments by combing through medical journals and news reports at the time.
“At best,” Stobbe writes, “these were a search for lifesaving treatments; at worst, some amounted to curiosity-satisfying experiments that hurt people but provided no useful results.”
Stobbe began researching this article in October, after the U.S. government revealed its researchers gave syphilis to hundreds of Guatemalan prisoners in the 1940s. The U.S. government issued a formal apology and prompted a meeting of the President’s bioethics commission that starts Monday.
The NewsHour talked to Stobbe this morning about his article. (Answers have been edited for space and clarity).
NEWSHOUR: What did you find in your research for this article?
MIKE STOBBE, ASSOCIATED PRESS REPORTER: There have been dozens of studies that the federal government has either conducted or paid for that involved the deliberate infection of test subjects. It was interesting how common it was.
There were some very noted researchers who were involved in studies that involved infecting mental patients or prisoners, including Jonas Salk, who’s famous for inventing the polio vaccine. In an attempt to see if an experimental flu vaccine worked, in 1942 he and his colleagues worked at a state insane asylum in Michigan exposing male patients to the flu. Some of these patients had vaccines, some of them didn’t.
And Joseph Goldberger, a public health hero. He’s the one that figured out that pellagra, a terrible disease that affected the south, was actually due to diet, poor diet. His study didn’t involve infecting people, because it was not a virus or bacteria causing the illness. But he did a study where they changed the diets of federal prisoners, and gave them this terrible, painful condition.
NEWSHOUR: How did you go about finding out about these experiments?
STOBBE: When the government apologized in October for the Guatemala experiment, one of the federal officials was asked, “How often has this happened before?” And he mentioned that there had been about 40 studies that they were aware of in the published literature – in medical journals, not things the general public would read. Forty seemed like a lot to me, so I pressed for citations, more information about which studies they were talking about.
Then me and my colleagues, two news researchers, dug them out – dug them out of old journals, went back to old press clippings to see what was known about them when they happened.
NEWSHOUR: Did these patients provide consent?
STOBBE: It’s an interesting question. If you go back and read the journals, the articles in the old medical publications, they generally refer to the test subjects as volunteers. But, some of the studies make clear that test subjects at times had trouble describing symptoms. We know from some press coverage of a few of the studies that test subjects were incapacitated.
In one study in Brooklyn in the early 1960s, they were volunteers but they didn’t know they were being injected with cancer cells. No one ever told them that. What seems to have happened, in a lot of studies, they were told, you know — would you like to participate in this study? We’re looking for at a treatment, sometimes they’d say what they were looking at, a vaccine or a treatment against “X.” But they wouldn’t necessarily tell them, here’s what we’re going to do to you. And these are the risks that you’re facing.
I interviewed one prisoner who’d been at a prison in Philadelphia in the 1960s. He went through some terrible studies, that were initially described to him — one of them was described to him as a test for a new type of bubble bath. He went through excruciating pain. They removed a layer of skin from his back and put on very painful chemicals. Not what you’d expect for a test for bubble bath. They didn’t always understand what they were getting into.
NEWSHOUR: How did the public not know this was going on?
STOBBE: I can’t say why some things weren’t written about, in general, you have to recall the 1940s and the 1950s, this was an era when some of these diseases that are under control today weren’t under control then. We were just getting syphilis under control. Antibiotics and some of these other drugs were just becoming available. A lot of these diseases were things that killed people regularly. There was much more of an attitude at the time, you know, the existing diseases is a terrible situation. And anything we can do to fix it seems, you know, largely justified.
They didn’t always get into the details of what was being done to achieve that goal. That’s a big part of it. As one source told me, it’s not that they didn’t have ethics at the time — it’s that they had different ethics.
NEWSHOUR: And did the civil rights movement have any impact on these experiments?
STOBBE: Yes. A couple studies that came to light in the ’60s and ’70s coincided with the civil rights movement. Efforts to bring more rights to women, to bring more rights to people in institutions, to bring more rights to prisoners. That was huge, that movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s played a key role in diminishing the use of prisoners in medical studies.
NEWSHOUR: Are there any experiments like this being conducted today either in the U.S., or overseas by U.S. companies?
STOBBE: In terms of studies that intentionally infect people with illnesses, the people I interviewed said they don’t think that’s happening. That’s something that’s come and gone, even overseas. What’s at issue now is that there are more studies being done overseas that involve new treatments or even existing treatments. It’s sort of a Tuskeegee-like concern. In the Tuskeegee study, they watched men who had syphilis deteriorate through the decades, even though there were good medicines that could have helped them and saved them. They didn’t treat them. That’s a concern that’s been raised about some international studies. There are some drugs that have been proven effective here in the United States — there are studies being done in other countries, for example, in Africa. Some patients are getting that proven treatment, and some aren’t.
And then the question is, well, how could you let some people suffer when you know there’s a good treatment available?