When we speak about medical experiments on Blacks people usually remember Henrietta Lacks and Tuskegee experiment but it's only the top of the iceberg.
“We’re talking about something that began in the 17th century,” says Harriet A. Washington, the author of Medical Apartheid, The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on BlackAmericans from Colonial Times to the Present. “Historically, one of the larger connections is that, if you’re talking about the appropriation of African-American bodies when enslavement was part of the law of the land, that represented an extension of slavery into eternity,” she explains.
A report, published in journal Endeavour, suggests that a widespread network of medical colleges and doctors across the American South carried out and published slave experiments for decades. “The physicians and colleges saw an opportunity in the institution of slavery to elevate themselves, and they took it,” historian Stephen Kenny of the University of Liverpool in the U.K., says. “It was commonplace.”
Medical journals that no longer exist, such as the Baltimore Medical and Surgical Journal and the Western and Southern Medical Recorder, overflow with reports of surgical experiments to treat injuries, birth defects, and tumors, all pioneered on slaves. Doctors often performed the experiments “apparently without pain relief,” according to the study, in an era before anaesthesia or sterile surgery.
In the summer of 1989, construction workers uncovered 10,000 bones from a basement belonging to the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.
Many of the bones showed signs of dissection. Forensic investigators quickly discovered they were the legacy of five decades of grave robbing intended to provide medical students before and after the Civil War with cadavers for anatomical lessons. This practice didn’t end until the early 20th century.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is still recognized today as one of the most notorious cases of prolonged and knowing violation of human subjects. The study used mostly poor, illiterate Blacks who were infected with syphilis. One of the main ethical issues, though there were many with this study, was the fact that participants were not given penicillin once it emerged as a standard treatment for syphilis in the 1930s nor were they made aware that there were effective treatment options for the disease.
In 1945, African-American Ebb Cade was secretly injected with plutonium, the substance used to make nuclear bombs. Cade, a 53-year-old truck driver, was taken to a hospital in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, after breaking several of his bones in a car accident. He became an unwitting guinea pig in a deadly government experiment and did not realise the doctors caring for him were also employed by the US Atomic Energy Commission. The doctors had been ordered to find out what exposure to plutonium did to the human body.
The mosquitoes were dropped from planes in special paper bags designed to burst open when they hit the ground, sending the infected insects off to bite as many African-Americans as they could. The military wanted to find out whether the mosquitoes could prove to be an effective weapon of war that could be used to infect, incapacitate, and kill America’s enemies.
Dozens of African-Americans in the mostly black city of Avon Park, in South Florida, became ill and at least eight residents died from the invasion of the mosquitoes. “Nobody knew about what had gone on here for years,” said a long-time resident of Avon Park.
Elsewhere in the USA in the 1950s, African-Americans were being experimented on in prisons. Inmates at a prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were used as guinea pigs to test toothpaste, skin cream, hair dye, and soap for several pharmaceutical companies. They were also used to test radioactive, toxic, and mind-altering drugs for the US military.
There was a report saying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were hiding results from a test of experimental measles vaccines that actually increased the likelihood of Black children developing autism.
Henrietta Lacks was the source of the first line of immortal human cells to ever be cloned back in the 1950s, but the removal of her cells was done without her permission or knowledge. In addition to harvesting Lacks’ cells without her knowledge or permission, researchers also published the family’s medical records without their consent.
Even after the US Congress passed, in 1974, the National Research Act, a law that regulated experimentation on humans and ensured that anyone participating in an experiment be properly informed, beforehand, experimental abuses continued.
In the 1990s, medical researchers gave a banned diet drug, fenfluramine, to dozens of African-American and Hispanic boys, aged 6 to 10, to see, bizarrely, whether or not the drug could help predict if the boys were likely to become criminals as adults. The boy’s families were given $125 for their children’s participation in the study.