Medical research glosses over inhumane experiments

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By Apsara Senaratne

The statue of James Marion Sims, the “father of gynecology” who experimented on black female slaves in the name of medical research, was recently removed from New York City’s Central Park. The monument, which memorialized Sims’ scientific achievements, had been the subject of a long-standing debate concerning the inhumane methods that scientists and researchers implemented in order to further their studies.

On one hand, Sims did achieve a great deal in the field of women’s health. His most significant accomplishment was the development of a surgical technique which could ensure the safe repair of vesicovaginal fistula, a continuous and involuntary discharge of urine. However, the validity of this monumental achievement becomes questionable when considering the inhumane methods through which he achieved this technique.

Sims is not the only scientist of the past whose unethical methods have been questioned and whose achievements have been re-evaluated. For example, surgeon Thomas Parran, the overseer of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, observed the effects of untreated syphilis in black men. The patients were not informed about the study, but were instead told that they would be treated for “bad blood,” a term vague enough to describe any ailment. Rather than receiving the promised treatment, the men were subjected to a series of syphilis tests and released when enough information had been gathered, with no treatment for their actual condition.

In a second attempt to discover a cure for syphilis, Parran deliberately infected over a thousand Guatemalan natives with syphilis and gonorrhea in an attempt to observe the diseases’ effects. This project was eerily similar to the Tuskegee study, but perhaps even more inhumane; rather than performing experiments which already-infected patients had voluntarily accepted, Parran instead forcibly infected an entire group of healthy individuals and forced them to suffer extreme pain.

Since then, buildings memorialising Parran have also been questioned, and the various institutions hosting his memorials are  reconsidering the use of his name as a symbol of prestige.

Those who defend such historical figures argue that their research methods should be judged by what was considered “acceptable” at the time, as well as by how their achievements have benefited the medical field. It is a well-known fact that Sims and Parran were not the only researchers implementing such methods. The use of slaves in research was extremely common among medical researchers, for instance. However, even in Sims’ and Parran’s time, such methods were not considered “acceptable” or humane; in fact, the U.S. Public Health Service objected to such experiments on various accounts due to the unethical subjection of innocents to infection and lifelong effects, and even forcibly ended the Tuskegee study due to safety concerns.

Various medical institutions, such as the American Medical Association, agree that physicians who cite unethical experiments as basis for their own research must explicitly state that the data collected from these experiments “do not meet contemporary standards for the ethical conduct of research,” as the American Medical Association stated in its Code of Medical Ethics.

As society grows more conscious of the effects of history and culture, debates will continue about who to memorialize and who to take from places of honor. Some argue it is justified to gloss over history in order to recognize the breakthroughs in science that came out of inhumane treatments. Some argue that refusing to memorialize individuals’ contributions to the medical field due to the inhumane methods through which they were achieved demonstrates an adjustment of history to modern ideals. Regardless of what happens to the monuments, there is a clear effort to also begin recognizing the harm which these individuals have done, even if it was said to be for the “greater good” at the time.

 

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