Top 10 Unethical Research Programs in U.S. History

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Modern science is subject to strict ethical codes when it comes to scientific trials, and for good reason. In the past, thousands of experiments were conducted without regard to safety or ethics, often with deadly consequences. Many were performed because public safety or the imminent threat to the nation was deemed paramount over individual rights. Others resulted from the misapplication of junk science, shortsightedness, or political greed. Such unethical research programs are still making headlines today, as the federal and state governments apologize and grant compensation to victims. Yet, despite our progress in reining in unethical testing practices, some of the below research programs still use questionable methods. That said, here are 10 of the darkest chapters in U.S. scientific history.


10. Animal Testing

Animal testing remains a highly controversial topic.

Rabbit after Draize test, which measures toxicity of cosmetics; Photo credit: PETA

Testing on animals has long been a highly controversial topic. It is also quite common, most notably in the cosmetics and the pharmaceutical industries. Rats and mice are most commonly used, but researchers also test products on dogs, cats, pigs, sheep, rabbits, monkeys and other animals. Although many people oppose animal testing under any circumstances, polls have shown more than half of U.S. residents support such testing, and the majority of researchers follow strict ethical guidelines, ensuring the animals receive proper medical care and treatment. In many cases, however, the ethical boundaries are obliterated and the animals suffer at the expense of research.

For those opposed to animal testing, PETA maintains a database of what it calls “cruelty-free” products. Although animal testing will probably always be used in some fashion, especially in the case of life-saving drugs, computer simulations may one day make such testing a rarity.


9. Entomological Warfare

Operation Big Buzz studied the use of malaria-laden mosquitoes in warfare.

The U.S. studied the use of disease-bearing insects, including mosquitoes, in the 1950s; Alvesgaspar

In the 1950s, the U.S. military studied the feasibility of using insects to carry diseases into combat, as well as their possible adverse effects on troops and civilian populations. Notable experiments were conducted in Florida, and during Operation Big Buzz in Georgia, when 1 million uninfected mosquitoes were released and studied to gauge dispersal patterns. You can certainly oppose the intent of this testing, but still appreciate the clever code names for these operations, such as the 1954 test in which fleas were released, known as Operation Big Itch.


8. Overseas Drug Trials

Some 60,000 clinical drug tests have been carried out overseas by U.S. companies since 2000.

Number of clinical drug tests reported in each country since 2000; Credit:

As U.S. controls for clinical drug trials have grown more stringent, many companies have moved testing overseas, often to poor Third World countries. According to a National Institutes of Health database,, some 60,000 clinical drug tests have been conducted since 2000, in 177 different countries outside the U.S. Those are just the studies that have been reported; countless more go unreported. Often the subjects taking part have no idea what they are participating in, are poorly paid, and simply sign their consent with an “X” or by leaving a fingerprint. Most such tests are conducted under strict ethical standards, but the very reason companies have moved so much testing overseas (poorly educated citizens, no fear of litigation in the event of problems), makes them attractive to researchers looking to cut ethical corners, or test high-risk drugs. In one well-known case, 49 babies in New Delhi died while testing new high blood pressure drugs.


7. Bellevue Electroshock Experiments

Electroshock treatment was frequently used as a therapy, including on children as young as 3.

Pychotron used for administering electroconvulsive therapy; Paul Hermans

Now a rarity in use for psychiatric treatment, electroshock therapy was once seen as a panacea for mental illness. To this end, electroconvulsive therapy was carried out for a variety of treatments, most notably for autism and schizophrenia. Beginning in 1940, Dr. Lauretta Bender experimented with electroshock therapy on as many as 200 children, some as young as 3 years of age. Hundreds of such experiments were conducted from 1940 through 1969 at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital and later at Creedmoor (N.Y.) State Hospital. Bender was said to have been “seriously disappointed in the after-effects and results shown” in the shattered lives of her subjects.


6. Statesville Penitentiary Malaria Study

The Statesville Penitentiary Malaria Study was one of many such unethical studies involving prisoners.

Hundreds of prisoners were exposed to malaria at an Illinois prison in the 1940s; Andrew Bardwell

Starting in March 1944, 432 prisoners at the Illinois State Penitentiary in Statesville were deliberately infected with malaria via mosquito exposure. Diseases such as malaria kill more soldiers during wartime than combat, and the study sought to test new drugs against the scourge. Although prisoners consented to participate in the trials, one can argue that even voluntary testing on the incarcerated is coercive by nature. In fact, defendants at the infamous Nazi Nuremburg Trials used the Statesville malaria research to justify their own barbaric experiments in the concentration camps.


5. CIA Operation MKULTRA

The U.S. government tested mind-altering drugs on many people without their consent during the Cold War.

1953 CIA document detailing use of LSD on subjects.

One of the most infamous CIA projects, MKULTRA was a covert program launched in the early 1950s to test the use of drugs such as LSD and their effects on mental states. Subjects for the MKULTRA experiments were often involuntary participants. Among other objectives, projects such as MKULTRA and a sister study known as Project ARTICHOKE sought to study mind control, interrogation techniques, and even the possibility of assassinating enemy heads of state by use of drugs. Revealed by the U.S. Congressional Church Committee in 1975, MKULTRA was perhaps a true-to-life mirror of the film the Manchurian Candidate, depicting the use of brainwashing on U.S. prisoners of war in Korea.


4. Eugenics Sterilization Laws

Eugenics programs advocating sterilization of certain people continued into the 1970s.

Eugenics Building in Topeka, Kansas, circa 1930s.

Usually associated with Hitler and Nazi Germany, the failed concept of eugenics actually got its start in the U.S. in the early 1900s and continued into the 1970s. Thousands of “feeble-minded” individuals were forcibly institutionalized and sterilized under a doctrine of racial and genetic purity. This was a total misapplication of genetics and Darwinian evolution, which states that survival is selected for over vast scales of time. Many of those victimized in this campaign were merely poor, uneducated, or caught up in the criminal system of the day. The topic of eugenics continues to make headlines today; most recently, a governor’s task force in North Carolina recommended in January 2012 that victims of that state’s sterilization program, which ran from 1929 through 1974, be paid $50,000 each.


3. Radiation Experiments

The U.S. conducted thousands of experiments during the Cold War to test the effects of radiation on humans.

Nuclear explosion on Bikini Atoll, 1946, in which unprotected U.S. servicemen were exposed to radiation.

During the Cold War, the U.S. conducted thousands of experiments on individuals to study the effects of radiation poisoning on the human body. These ranged from exposing troops to atomic detonations, to feeding radiated foods to conscientious objectors or the mentally ill and even the repeated insertion of radium rods into the nostrils of test subjects. Many such experiments were conducted even after the establishment of the Nuremberg Code banned such practices following World War II. The imminent threat of a nuclear war was seen by many to supersede the individual rights of the few, much as the fight against the threat of terrorism today often clashes with individual rights and privacy.


2. Germ Warfare Tests

The U.S. conducted extensive germ warfare research from 1949 to 1969.
The book Rogue State notes that between 1949 and 1969, the U.S. Army dispersed bio-warfare organisms over 239 populated areas to study vectoring patterns. One such instance was the 1955 release of whooping cough bacteria around the Tampa Bay area, causing cases of the disease to jump from 339 to 1,080 (including 12 fatalities) in one year. Another example was the deliberate and secret exposure of U.S. warships to VX and Sarin nerve gas during Project Shipboard Hazard and Defense.


1. Syphilis Experiments

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment withheld treatment from hundreds of Alabama men infected with the deadly disease.

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment was one of several experiments U.S. researchers conducted on the deadly disease.

The venereal disease syphilis is insidious, often known as “The Great Imitator” due to its wide array of effects and its ability to lay dormant in individuals, often for decades. With the advent of antibiotics, several studies were conducted to learn about the disease in the early 20th century, the most infamous of which was the Tuskegee experiment. Starting in 1932 and continuing until 1972, the Tuskegee experiment followed 600 poor black farmers in Alabama, 399 who had contracted syphilis prior to the study. All believed they were receiving free government medical care for “bad blood,” and although a cure for syphilis was readily available since the mid 1940s via penicillin, treatment was deliberately withheld to study the course of the disease. Many subjects subsequently developed late-stage neuro-syphilis, infected their wives and even children who were born with congenital syphilis. The horrors of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment led to the establishment of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research in 1979. Yet the damage from unethical tests had already been done decades earlier. There were several other such experiments involving syphilis in the United States. Another similar experiment of note occurred in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948 when U.S. researchers deliberately infected almost 700 prisoners with gonorrhea and syphilis without their consent to study the effectiveness of new antibiotics. The experiments left such a devastating legacy in that country that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly apologized on behalf of the U.S. government in October 2010.


Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at