The Most Unethical Science Experiments Conducted on the Unwitting and Vulnerable

Updated on July 20, 2017
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Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.

A Clockwork Orange might be a fictional story but there have been equally morally questionable scientific experiments in real life.
A Clockwork Orange might be a fictional story but there have been equally morally questionable scientific experiments in real life.

Serial killers often kill people they think will not be reported missing such hookers, vagrants, homeless people, or troubled runaways. I guess you can excuse a serial killer for being a psychopath, but what happens when these disturbing ideologies filter their way into mainstream scientific experimentation? How many vulnerable and voiceless individuals did we torture in the name of science?

War Captives: Twins

Here is a set of twins set aside for study in WWII.
Here is a set of twins set aside for study in WWII.

Dr Mengele's name echoes through history as the epitome of an evil scientist. He had a thing for twins. In fact he requested that any identical twins coming into a concentration camp during the Holocaust should be sent to him, especially if they were children. Intellectually, he liked twins because of their identical DNA and upbringing. With this lack of differentiation he could conduct all sorts of experiments on one twin while leaving the other as a "control." He did this on a massive scale and in one year, between 1943-1944, he managed to obtain a startling 1,500 sets of twins.

Twin studies are still done today, but not with the fiendish and completely unethical glee of Dr. Mengele. Before the year was out, only 200 twins survived the onslaught. Many of his experiments were beyond cruel. Sometimes he'd inject chemicals into their eyes trying to change the color and at other times he'd isolate them to see how long it would take them to mentally crack. With others, he fished out internal organs, lopped off limbs, conducted sex changes and neuterings, and in some cases, he even studied incestuous pregnancies. Even after all this, he was never brought to justice. Instead, he fled the country and lived for 35 years as a free man and died in 1979.

Slave women may have provided for cheap and accessible test subjects for doctors and researchers conducting morally iffy experiments.
Slave women may have provided for cheap and accessible test subjects for doctors and researchers conducting morally iffy experiments.

Slave Women

There are probably not many people more vulnerable than enslaved women. Before the Civil War, American slave women were subject to extreme labor conditions, torture, beatings, and rape from any white man who felt inclined. How could this picture get any worse? Well, when science gets involved!

Women who go through natural child birth are put at risk of Vesicovaginal fistula, a condition that will leave the woman incontinent, which in turn could give her a severe social stigma to contend with. Enter the scene, Dr. J Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecological surgery. He said he could fix this little issue and he wanted to prove himself. How? By operating on slave women with the condition, which may actually sound a bit noble until you realize he did so without any anesthetic at all. According to him the surgery was "...not painful enough to justify the trouble." It doesn't appear anyone bothered to ask him if surgery on his tender bits would have been painful enough to justify the trouble! He carried out his surgeries between 1845-1849 and was successful in pioneering this new surgery, which is still used today.

Orphans were a particularly easy subject to gather for experimentation in the past. With no parents or consenting adults, they were cheap, effective, and withstood experimentation that today would be considered criminal.
Orphans were a particularly easy subject to gather for experimentation in the past. With no parents or consenting adults, they were cheap, effective, and withstood experimentation that today would be considered criminal.


Most people know about Pavlov's famous dog experiment where he proved that dogs could be conditioned to anticipate food even when they couldn't see or smell the food. It was a cornerstone experiment in psychology and sounds rather benign. However, Pavlov was far from a dog lover. Many of his experiments were not done with positive reinforcement like the aforementioned, but with negative reinforcements such as flooding the dogs' kennels and making them believe they were going to drown and conditioning them to be afraid of stairs by repeatedly pushing them down a flight or so. Pavlov's experimentation on dogs may have been cruel, but he wasn't just interested in dogs. Ideally he wanted to know how the human mind worked so he acquired himself some children from the local orphanage - you know, impressionable minds who didn't have a parent to stand up for them. He conducted the same salivation experiment on the orphans as he did on his dogs, the only catch was orphans aren't as willing as dogs to receive food from strangers. So he strapped them down to a chair, taped their mouths open, inserted a device to measure their saliva, and proceeded to force feed them both sweets and bad tasting things. This all sounds like the beginning of a bad alien abduction movie.

If you think Pavlov was the only one bold enough to experiment on orphans, you'd be wrong. Wendell Johnson decided he'd conduct a little experiment on stuttering in 1939. He took 22 orphans. He gave positive speech therapy to half of the orphans and the other half, he mentally tortured by telling them their speech skills were awful and that they were stutterers (which was completely false). Not surprisingly, the children in the negative reinforcement group became withdrawn. Many refused to speak at all by the end of the study and some of those that did found themselves with a permanent stutter that did not exist before. No effort was made to undue this damage and the experiment was nicknamed "The Monster Experiment" by the undergraduates who helped him conduct it. Even in 1939, these students felt it was ethically abhorrent.

Unknowing Civilians

Mushroom clouds like these were sometimes tested within a 50 mile range of allied civilians.
Mushroom clouds like these were sometimes tested within a 50 mile range of allied civilians.
  1. In 1954, the U.S. government tested its new nuclear bomb on the Bikini Atoll. People didn't live there, but they did on surrounding islands. The radiation spread a lot farther than scientists had anticipated and these people soaked in an overwhelming dose. In the following ten years there were many miscarriages, stillbirths, and babies born with horrific birth defects. Children who seemed normal often had stunted growth or came down with thyroid cancer. It was pretty obvious the radiation was doing some bad things. What was worse was our own lack of responsibility in the matter. Rather than treating the unfortunate Marshallese people, we just studied them until they died, not wanting to contaminate the results of this secondary radiation study.
  2. In the former story there is at least the comfort of knowing that the original test (the atom bomb detonation) was not meant or hypothesized to harm any of the individuals it ended up effecting. This wasn't the case during the Tuskegee Study. The Tuskegee Study was conducted between the years of 1932-1972 on 399 individuals. By the end of the study only 74 of the test subjects were alive to tell the story. They were all poor, illiterate, black share croppers who had no access to medical coverage. During this time the people conducting the study came in and offered them free medical help and a free burial if they died. All these men had syphilis, which at the beginning of the study was a hard to treat and often fatal disease. By the end of the study, some 40 years later, it was very treatable but these men were never told that. In fact, they weren't even told they had syphilis in the first place, instead they were told they had "bad blood," and the researchers methodically watched as the disease progressed and eventually killed them and infected others. At least 40 wives contracted this "bad blood" and nineteen children were born with congenital syphilis.
  3. Project MK-ULTRA was a CIA operated experiment that ran for many years. Their ultimate goal was to see if brainwashing and mind control was a feasible biological weapon, but they were at times extremely buffoonish. As part of this project they herded up hookers and embarrassed johns, as well as military personnel and other random volunteers who would get a dose of LSD. Of course, they wouldn't really consent to this, nor would they expect anything would happen to them until their minds would spiral wildly into a world of vivid hallucinations. Since their goal was to control the minds of others, they weren't too concerned with dosages and some of these people suffered a permanent psychotic snap and fell into a life of schizophrenia. They also tested other biological chemical agents and may have even killed a few citizens in the pursuit of these weapons. Knowing that they had blatantly violated the Nuremberg Code, they ordered all their documents destroyed when the project disbanded in 1973.
  4. Japan's experimentation on its citizens far exceeded the scale of MK-ULTRA. Their Unit 731 chemical and biological weapons research team were responsible for over 200,000 deaths when they decided to use their own people for vast unknowing medical experimentation. Wells were contaminated with disease, plague-ridden fleas were spread across cities, and the more unfortunate patients that were involved on an individual level were subject to numerous tortures. Some were forced to march through the cold until they got frostbite and then when they were warmed up they were observed for the effects of untreated gangrene. Others were offered inoculations: various strains of diseases. People had their limbs amputated and sewn to other parts of their body. Women who became pregnant by being raped by their experimenters were then dissected alive. Other rape victims found that they were raped merely as a means to contract syphilis and gonorrhea. And finally, some people were used as living targets for flame throwers and grenades.

This man undergoes "electric shock therapy" which was used historically on both mental patients and gay people.
This man undergoes "electric shock therapy" which was used historically on both mental patients and gay people.


In South Africa, apartheid was not just used to keep blacks in their place, but it was also used to keep gays in theirs. Between 1971-1989, gays were ruthlessly ferreted out of the Apartheid Army. From there they'd be whisked away to medical facilities where shock treatment, psychological aversion therapies, hormone replacement, and drugs were used to change these individuals into heterosexuals. When all else failed, forced sexual reassignment surgery was performed on at least 900 individuals, most, if not all, who were gay, not transsexual. Most of the victims were men between the ages of 16-24.

None of these atrocities conducted on gays were anything new. In the United States most of these procedures had been done in decades past to mental patients. Up until the 1970s being gay was actually considered a mental disorder and in some instances you could be forcibly institutionalized for being afflicted. Aversion therapy became extreme and deranged. For instance, a subject would be shown a nude photo of someone of the same sex while simultaneously being forced to sniff something that smelled really fowl. Other times, they would be injected with vomit inducing drugs, shocked with electricity on all parts of their body, or forced to lie in a bed of their own vomit and wastes. Sometimes these experiments took days and some people actually died. Still, the shame was so great at the time that few of these tragedies have come to light in the present day.

What We Have Learned

Science is not inherently good or evil, rather it reflects the intentions of those who use it. Today in the United States and in many other countries, it is illegal to use orphans for fodder or experiment on people who don't know they are being experimented on. There are many ethics and guidelines and people whose job it is to make sure that these ideologies are being enforced. We have learned a lot from the past, but we can't undo the bad deeds that have already been done. Instead, we should pay our respects for all those who have suffered in the name of science and vow to never repeat those mistakes again.

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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      the twins photo is from Diane Arbus...........

    • Penny G profile image

      Penny Godfirnon 

      4 years ago from Southern Iowa

      Geez I feel horrible but glad I read it.

    • Theophanes profile imageAUTHOR

      Theophanes Avery 

      6 years ago from New England

      Cruelty is one of those things... I believe in most instances it can be omitted from science altogether if you have a creative enough mind to come up with a more humane way of testing. This goes for people and animals. It's just sad really. There was another experiment done to see if decapitating live rats should be considered inhumane and how far would a person go to take orders... Suffice to say most volunteers for this study didn't go all the way through with it but some did and the ultimate losers were the live and fully alert rats who got decapitated! Tell me there wasn't another way to test that one!

    • profile image

      Chewy Mommy 

      6 years ago

      I learned a lot from this piece and was disturbed by the new knowledge I gained. It's sad that a few scientists believe cruelty to another human being is okay as long as it serves a purpose.

    • Theophanes profile imageAUTHOR

      Theophanes Avery 

      6 years ago from New England

      Yes, Pavlov actually won the Nobel peace prize for his salivating dogs. That seems to be as far as most want to look into his life and works. History is often disappointing if not disturbing. Thank you for the comment.

    • Fossillady profile image


      6 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      Wow, disturbing, it was difficult to read through the different cases of atrocities performed on our brothers and sisters. I'm glad that I know about Pavlov because we're not taught about that part of it. Knowledge is power and we must never forget these horrible incidences. Thank you for the sharing a tough subject! Kathi


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