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10 of the Most Disturbing Human Experiments in History

6. In the “Milgram experiment,” people had to administer an electric shock to a person sitting in another room. The electric shock was fake. However, during the study, the subjects suffered from emotional stress. Thus, the study compromised the standards of ethics.

In the early 1960s, professor Stanley Milgram put an advertisement in the newspaper looking for volunteers for a memory study. However, this was only partly true. He wanted to explore the conflict between obedience to authority figures and personal conscience. In the experiment, he referred to subjects as “teachers”.

They had to read a string of words. The “learner”, another person, needed to say a pair word. Before the starting of the experiment, the learner had to memorize a list of the word pairs. However, in case the learner failed, the teacher had to administer an electric shock. As the learner continuously made mistakes in repeating words, the intensity of shock increased. Teachers gave shocks from 15 volts to 450 volts.

In reality, the learner was a confederate of Milgram’s. He gave wrong answers on purpose. He did not receive any real electric shock. However, when the teacher pressed the button of electric shock, he simply acted as if he was suffering. This horrified some of the subjects.

Therefore, they left mid-way. Shockingly, the majority of the subjects delivered the shocks. Later, the officials questioned the study for not following ethical practices. It put the subjects under huge emotional pressure. (1, 2)

7. In the Rosenhan experiment, psychologist David Rosenhan and his associates faked hallucinations to get into psychiatric hospitals. Once there, they acted normally and told the staff that they were no longer experiencing hallucinations. Despite this, they were forced to take antipsychotic drugs and admit to having a mental illness in order to be released.

Rosenhan Experiment
David Rosenhan and Center building at Saint Elizabeths Hospital. Image credits: Wikimedia

In a 1973 experiment to prove the inadequacy of diagnosing psychiatric disorders, David Rosenhan, a Stanford psychologist professor, and his seven healthy associates, faked hallucinations. They used pseudo names.

They gained admission to 12 different mental health institutions across the United States, including underfunded public hospitals in rural areas, urban university-run hospitals, and one expensive private hospital.

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They wanted to evaluate the validity of the psychiatric diagnosis. The hospital staff had no idea about this study. On admission, they behaved normally. They even informed the doctors that they were fine. All of them mentioned identical symptoms. Interestingly, doctors at public hospitals diagnosed seven of them with schizophrenia.

One more associate was diagnosed with manic-depressive psychosis at a private hospital. Surprisingly, none of the pseudopatients were identified as impostors by the hospital staff. The doctors gave them antipsychotic drugs. However, they would flush the drugs down the toilet.

The experiment required the pseudopatients to get out of the hospital on their own by getting the hospital to release them. In case of any emergency, they were supposed to call a lawyer. Some of the pseudopatients called him on realising that they would not be voluntarily released on short notice.

Eventually, the hospitals released all the patients. Their stay lasted from seven to 52 days. The findings of the study were first published in 1973 in the Science Journal. (1, 2)

8. At Willowbrook State School in New York, mentally challenged kids were exposed to hepatitis infection. Started in 1955, this study lasted for 20 years. The only reason for conducting this unethical experiment was to evaluate the efficacy of newly made injections against hepatitis.

Willowbrook State School
Willowbrook State School. Image credits: Digitalcollections.nypl.org

Willowbrook State School was one of the biggest state-run institutions in the 1950s. It was a home for 4,000 intellectually disabled kids. In 1955, Dr. Saul Krugman initiated multiple experiments. He wanted to check the efficacy of gamma globulin against hepatitis.

The doctor infected these kids with hepatitis. The team synthesized the stool of six infected patients and created samples. Afterward, they added these samples into kids’ food and chocolate milk.

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This study lasted for almost 20 years. In 1987, the officials shut down the hospital. Krugman tried to defend himself by making a disputed statement. According to him, these kids received great care in the institute.

Therefore, this was the best chance of finding non-consenting subjects. Krugman believed in a state-run institution, kids were going to be infected with hepatitis anyway. He died in 1995. He defended this study until the end. (1, 2)

9. To understand if the human body can be changed unnaturally, Nazi Germany performed experiments on 1,500 sets of twins. For example, sewing their bodies together to create conjoined twins. When one of the twins died during the experiment, the other one was also killed.

Nazi Germany experiments on sets of twins
Image credits: USHMM

Physician Josef Mengele wanted to understand the similarities and differences in the genetics of twins. He also wanted to understand whether genes can be changed to create a new generation with specific characteristics. Parents of twins identified them to the officials. They hoped that their kids might be saved from the gas chamber. However, they had no idea what would happen next.

One of the twins was used as a control. The other one participated in experiments like amputation and forced insemination. The team injected different color dyes in twins’ eyes to see if they would change colors. They sewed the twins together to create conjoined twins. If one of the twins died, the other one was murdered. They compared their bodies and studied the effects.

About 1,500 twins unwillingly participated in this study between 1943 and 1944. Out of these, only 200 survived. (1, 2)

10. In the ill-famed Japanese Warfare Research Unit 731, doctors conducted appalling experiments on live and dead prisoners of war. These experiments included vivisection and planned infection of people with plague and syphilis. More than 3,000 died in this study.

Unit 731
(Left) Building on the site of the Harbin bioweapon facility of Unit 731. (Right) Shirō Ishii – Army medical officer who served as the director of Unit 731. Image credits: Masao Takezawa/Wikipedia, Akiyoshi Matsuoka/Wikipedia

Doctors conducted lethal experiments in Unit 731. It was a Japanese covert biological and chemical warfare research unit. Prisoners of war were subjected to experiments like vivisection and planned infection with plague, gonorrhea, and syphilis.

Unit 731
Image credits: Unit 731 Testimony/Amazon.in

In this study, males, females, and even infants were used. The guards raped female prisoners, leading to pregnancy. Doctors performed vivisection without anesthesia. Some had limbs amputated or organs removed.

The prisoners were not given food and water to evaluate the length of their survival without essentials. They were made targets to test grenades. Finally, this study ended after Japan was defeated in World War II.

American Lieutenant Colonel Murray Sanders visited Japan. He granted immunity to the physicians involved in this study. In return, he asked for the data collected. In 2018, the National Archives of Japan released the names of 3,607 prisoners of Unit 731. (1, 2)

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