Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

They were cheap and available: prisoners as research subjects in twentieth century America

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 29 November 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1437
  1. Allen M Hornblum, instructora
  1. a Department of Urban Studies, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122-2585, USA
  1. Correspondence to: 7100 Bustleton Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19149, USA
  • Accepted 9 October 1997


On 20 August 1947 Gerhard Rose, one of Germany's most respected physicians, stood in the prisoner's dock at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, awaiting his sentence for “murders, tortures, and other atrocities committed in the name of medical science.” Dr Rose, the department head for tropical medicine of the Robert Koch Institute, was on trial along with 22 of his medical colleagues, for perpetrating “ghastly” and “hideous” experiments on concentration camp prisoners during the war.1

At one point in the trial when the chief prosecution witness, Dr Andrew C Ivy of the medical school of the University of Illinois, underscored the basic principle “that human experimental subjects must be volunteers,” Dr Rose and his defence counsel vigorously objected, arguing that the United States was guilty of similar medical practices and giving several examples to support this contention.1

Early experiments on prisoners in US

The Nazi doctor's first example of American complicity concerned the medical experiments of Dr Richard P Strong, who performed a series of studies in 1906 with “cholera virus upon inmates of the Bilibid Prison in Manila.” The Philippine Islands experiment on prisoners already sentenced to death resulted in 13 fatalities and was eventually attributed to a bottle of bubonic plague serum having been substituted mistakenly for a bottle of cholera serum.2 3 4 5 Strong, who later became professor of tropical medicine at Harvard University, was not deterred by the error and continued experiments on Philippine prisoners. His beriberi experiments six years later also resulted in death, but survivors were compensated with cigars and cigarettes.

Another German physician on trial for his life at Nuremberg, Dr Georg August Weltz, the chief of the Institute for Aviation Medicine in Munich, offered the name of another American doctor who used prisoners on behalf of medical science. Dr Joseph Goldberger, a …

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