10 Outrageous Experiments Conducted on Humans

By: Maria Trimarchi  | 
Hands holding a fence
The atrocities carried out by the Nazis in their concentration camps are horrifying, but there have been many other human-on-human experiments through in history. Merche Portu/Getty Images

Prisoners, the disabled, the physically and mentally sick, the poor -- these are all groups once considered fair game to use as subjects in your research experiments. And if you didn't want to get permission, you didn't have to, and many doctors and researchers conducted their experiments on people who were unwilling to participate or who were unknowingly participating.

Forty years ago the U.S. Congress changed the rules; informed consent is now required for any government-funded medical study involving human subjects. But before 1974 the ethics involved in using humans in research experiments was a little, let's say, loose. And the exploitation and abuse of human subjects was often alarming. We begin our list with one of the most famous instances of exploitation, a study that eventually helped change the public view about the lack of consent in the name of scientific advancements.


10: Tuskegee Syphilis Study

In 1997, a formal public apology was issued to victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Here, Herman Shaw embraces President Bill Clinton during the apology ceremony.

Syphilis was a major public health problem in the 1920s, and in 1928 the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a charity organization, launched a public healthcare project for blacks in the American rural south. Sounds good, right? It was, until the Great Depression rocked the U.S. in 1929 and the project lost its funding. Changes were made to the program; instead of treating health problems in underserved areas, in 1932 poor black men living in Macon County, Alabama, were instead enrolled in a program to treat what they were told was their "bad blood" (a term that, at the time, was used in reference to everything from anemia to fatigue to syphilis). They were given free medical care, as well as food and other amenities such as burial insurance, for participating in the study. But they didn't know it was all a sham. The men in the study weren't told that they were recruited for the program because they were actually suffering from the sexually transmitted disease syphilis, nor were they told they were taking part in a government experiment studying untreated syphilis, the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male." That's right: untreated.

Despite thinking they were receiving medical care, subjects were never actually properly treated for the disease. This went on even after penicillin hit the scene and became the go-to treatment for the infection in 1945, and after Rapid Treatment Centers were established in 1947. Despite concerns raised about the ethics of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study as early as 1936, the study didn't actually end until 1972 after the media reported on the multi-decade experiment and there was subsequent public outrage.


9: The Nazi Medical Experiments

A Polish witness and a doctor show the wounds the woman received from Nazi experiments during the trial of 23 Nazi doctors in Nuremberg, Germany in 1946.
© Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

During WWII, the Nazis performed medical experiments on adults and children imprisoned in the Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. The accounts of abuse, mutilation, starvation, and torture reads like a grisly compilation of all nine circles of hell. Prisoners in these death camps were subjected to heinous crimes under the guise of military advancement, medical and pharmaceutical advancement, and racial and population advancement.

Jews were subjected to experiments intended to benefit the military, including hypothermia studies where prisoners were immersed in ice water in an effort to ascertain how long a downed pilot could survive in similar conditions. Some victims were only allowed sea water, a study of how long pilots could survive at sea; these subjects, not surprisingly, died of dehydration. Victims were also exposed to high altitude in decompression chambers -- often followed with brain dissection on the living -- to study high-altitude sickness and how pilots would be affected by atmospheric pressure changes.


Effectively treating war injuries was also a concern for the Nazis, and pharmaceutical testing went on in these camps. Sulfanilamide was tested as a new treatment for war wounds. Victims were inflicted with wounds that were then intentionally infected. Infections and poisonings were also studied on human subjects. Tuberculosis (TB) was injected into prisoners in an effort to better understand how to immunize against the infection. Experiments with poison, to determine how fast subjects would die, were also on the agenda.

The Nazis also performed genetic and racially-motivated sterilizations, artificial inseminations, and also conducted experiments on twins and people of short stature.

8: Watson's 'Little Albert' Experiment

Conditioning a baby to be fearful and upset is definitely a jerk move.
©Tamara Dragovic/iStock/Thinkstock

In 1920 John Watson, along with graduate student Rosalie Rayner, conducted an emotional-conditioning experiment on a nine-month-old baby -- whom they nicknamed "Albert B" -- at Johns Hopkins University in an effort to prove their theory that we're all born as blank slates that can be shaped. The child's mother, a wet nurse who worked at the hospital, was paid one dollar for allowing her son to take part.

The "Little Albert" experiment went like this: Researchers first introduced the baby to a small, furry white rat, of which he initially had no fear. (According to reports, he didn't really show much interest at all). Then they re-introduced him to the rat while a loud sound rang out. Over and over, "Albert" was exposed to the rat and startling noises until he became frightened any time he saw any small, furry animal (rats, for sure, but also dogs and monkeys) regardless of noise.


Who exactly "Albert" was remained unknown until 2010, when his identity was revealed to be Douglas Merritte. Merritte, it turns out, wasn't a healthy subject: He showed signs of behavioral and neurological impairment, never learned to talk or walk, and only lived to age six, dying from hydrocephalus (water on the brain). He also suffered from a bacterial meningitis infection he may have acquired accidentally during treatments for his hydrocephalus, or, as some theorize, may have been -- horrifyingly -- intentionally infected as part of another experiment.

In the end, Merritte was never deconditioned, and because he died at such a young age no one knows if he continued to fear small furry things post-experiment.

7: The Monster Study of 1939

As a result of the study, children with no stuttering problem were left with self-esteem issues, and none of the actual stutterers were helped.
© lvdesign77/iStockphoto

Today we understand that stuttering has many possible causes. It may run in some families, an inherited genetic quirk of the language center of the brain. It may also occur because of a brain injury, including stroke or other trauma. Some young children stutter when they're learning to talk, but outgrow the problem. In some rare instances, it may be a side effect of emotional trauma. But you know what it's not caused by? Criticism.

In 1939 Mary Tudor, a graduate student at the University of Iowa, and her faculty advisor, speech expert Wendell Johnson, set out to prove stuttering could be taught through negative reinforcement -- that it's learned behavior. Over four months, 22 orphaned children were told they would be receiving speech therapy, but in reality they became subjects in a stuttering experiment; only about half were actually stutterers, and none received speech therapy.


During the experiment the children were split into four groups:

  • Half of the stutterers were given negative feedback.
  • The other half of stutterers were given positive feedback.
  • Half of the non-stuttering group were all told they were beginning to stutterer and were criticized.
  • The other half of non-stutterers were praised.

The only significant impact the experiment had was on that third group; these kids, despite never actually developing a stutter, began to change their behavior, exhibiting low self-esteem and adopting the self-conscious behaviors associated with stutterers. And those who did stutter didn't cease doing so regardless of the feedback they received.

6: Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study

Men held at Stateville Penitentiary (pictured here) volunteered for the malaria program in the hopes of reduced sentences.
© NY Daily News via Getty Images

It's estimated that between 60 to 65 percent of American soldiers stationed in the South Pacific during WWII suffered from a malarial infection at some point during their service. For some units the infection proved to be more deadly than the enemy forces were, so finding an effective treatment was a high priority [source: Army Heritage Center Foundation]. Safe anti-malarial drugs were seen as essential to winning the war.

Beginning in 1944 and spanning over the course of two years, more than 400 prisoners at the Stateville Penitentiary in Illinois were subjects in an experiment aimed at finding an effective drug against malaria. Prisoners taking part in the experiment were infected with malaria, and then treated with experimental anti-malarial treatments. The experiment didn't have a hidden agenda, and its unethical methodology didn't seem to bother the American public, who were united in winning WWII and eager to bring the troops home — safe and healthy. The intent of the experiments wasn't hidden from the subjects, who were at the time praised for their patriotism and in many instances given shorter prison sentences in return for their participation.


5: The Aversion Project in South Africa

This same sex couple married in the chapel of the former apartheid prison of Robben Island in 2010, but it wasn’t so long ago that homosexuality was illegal in South Africa.

If you were living during the apartheid era in South Africa, you lived under state-regulated racial segregation. If that itself wasn't difficult enough, the state also controlled your sexuality.

The South African government upheld strict anti-homosexual laws. If you were gay you were considered a deviant — and your homosexuality was also considered a disease that could be treated. Even after homosexuality ceased to be considered a mental illness and aversion therapy as a way to cure it debunked, psychiatrists and Army medical professionals in the South African Defense Force (SADF) continued to believe the outdated theories and treatments. In particular, aversion therapy techniques were used on prisoners and on South Africans who were forced to join the military under the conscription laws of the time.


At Ward 22 at 1 Military hospital in Voortrekkerhoogte, Pretoria, between 1969 and 1987 attempts were made to "cure" perceived deviants. Homosexuals, gay men and lesbians were drugged and subjected to electroconvulsive behavior therapy while shown aversion stimuli (same-sex erotic photos), followed by erotic photos of the opposite sex after the electric shock. When the technique didn't work (and it absolutely didn't), victims were then treated with hormone therapy, which in some cases included chemical castration. In addition, an estimated 900 men and women also underwent gender reassignment surgery when subsequent efforts to "reorient" them failed — most without consent, and some left unfinished [source: Kaplan].

4: Milgram Shock Experiments

A portrait of Stanley Milgram
© Jan Rieckhoff/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Ghostbuster Peter Venkman, who is seen in the fictional film conducting ESP/electro-shock experiments on college students, was likely inspired by social psychologist Stanley Milgram's famous series of shock experiments conducted in the early 1960s. During Milgram's experiments "teachers" — Americans recruited for a Yale study they thought was about memory and learning — were told to read lists of words to "learners" (actors, although the teachers didn't know that). Each person in the teacher role was instructed to press a lever that would deliver a shock to their "learner" every time he made a mistake on word-matching quizzes. Teachers believed the voltage of shocks increased with each mistake, and ranged from 15 to 450 possible volts; roughly two-thirds of teachers shocked learners to the highest voltage, continuing to deliver jolts at the instruction of the experimenter.

In reality, this wasn't an experiment about memory and learning; rather, it was about how obedient we are to authority. No shocks were actually given.


Today, Milgram's shock experiments continue to be controversial; while they're criticized for their lack of realism, others point to the results as important to how humans behave when under duress. In 2010 the results of Milgram's study were repeated — with about 70 percent of teachers obediently administering what they believed to be the highest voltage shocks to their learners.

3: CIA Mind-Control Experiments (Project MK-Ultra)

We don’t know the full story on the MK-Ultra experiments — all of the records were destroyed.
© vasabii/iStockphoto

If you're familiar with "Men Who Stare at Goats" or "The Manchurian Candidate" then you know: There was a period in the CIA's history when they performed covert mind-control experiments. If you thought it was fiction, it wasn't.

During the Cold War the CIA started researching ways they could turn Americans into CIA-controlled "superagents," people who could carry out assassinations and who wouldn't be affected by enemy interrogations. Under what was known as the MK-ULTRA project, CIA researchers experimented on unsuspecting American (and Canadian) citizens by slipping them psychedelic drugs, including LSD, PCP and barbiturates, as well as additional — and additionally illegal — methods such as hypnosis, and, possibly, chemical, biological, and radiological agents. Universities participated, mostly as a delivery system, also without their knowledge. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 7,000 soldiers were also involved in the research, without their consent.


The project endured for more than 20 years, during which the agency spent about $20 million. There was one death tied to the project, although more were suspected; tin 1973 the CIA destroyed what records were kept.

2: Unit 731

Remnants of the Unit 731 installation still stand in China's Heilongjiang Province.
© Wang Kai/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Using biological warfare was banned by the Geneva Protocol in 1925, but Japan rejected the ban. If germ warfare was effective enough to be banned, it must work, military leaders believed. Unit 731, a secret unit in a secret facility — publicly known as the Epidemic Prevention and Water Supply Unit — was established in Japanese-controlled Manchuria, where by the mid-1930s Japan began experimenting with pathogenic and chemical warfare and testing on human subjects. There, military physicians and officers intentionally exposed victims to infectious diseases including anthrax, bubonic plague, cholera, syphilis, typhus and other pathogens, in an effort to understand how they affected the body and how they could be used in bombs and attacks in WWII.

In addition to working with pathogens, Unit 731 conducted experiments on people, including — but certainly not limited to — dissections and vivisections on living humans, all without anesthesia (the experimenters believed using it would skew the results of the research).


Many of the subjects were Chinese civilians and prisoners of war, but also included Russian and American victims among others — basically, anyone who wasn't Japanese was a potential subject. Today it's estimated that about 100,000 people were victims within the facility, but when you include the germ warfare field experiments (such as reports of Japanese planes dropping plague-infected fleas over Chinese villages and poisoning wells with cholera) the death toll climbs to estimates closer to 250,000, maybe more.

Believe it or not, after WWII the U.S. granted immunity to those involved in these war crimes committed at Unit 731 as part of an information exchange agreement — and until the 1980s, the Japanese government refused to admit any of this even happened.

1: The Human Vivisections of Herophilus

Even when mummification was a natural part of Ancient Egypt’s culture, dissection of a body was desecration.

Ancient physician Herophilus is considered the father of anatomy. And while he made significant discoveries during his practice, it's how he learned about internal workings of the human body that lands him on this list.

Herophilus practiced medicine in Alexandria, Egypt, and during the reign of the first two Ptolemaio Pharoahs was allowed, at least for about 30 to 40 years, to dissect human bodies, which he did, publicly, along with contemporary Greek physician and anatomist Erasistratus. Under Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II, criminals could be sentenced to dissection and vivisection as punishment, and it's said the father of anatomy not only dissected the dead but also performed vivisection on an estimated 600 living prisoners [source: Elhadi].

Herophilus made great strides in the study of human anatomy — especially the brain, eyes, liver, circulatory system, nervous system and reproductive system, during a time in history when dissecting human cadavers was considered an act of desecration of the body (there were no autopsies conducted on the dead, although mummification was popular in Egypt at the time). And, like today, performing vivisection on living bodies was considered butchery.

Frequently Asked Questions

How have these experiments influenced current ethical standards in research?
These experiments have had a profound impact on current ethical standards in research, leading to the establishment of stricter guidelines and the requirement for informed consent from all research participants. The public outrage and ethical concerns raised by these studies helped shape the development of modern ethical principles in research, including respect for persons, beneficence and justice.
What protections are in place today to prevent similar unethical research on humans?
Today, protections include institutional review boards (IRBs) that review and approve research involving humans, informed consent requirements and ethical codes such as the Declaration of Helsinki. Additionally, there are legal and professional repercussions for researchers who violate ethical standards, ensuring that human rights are prioritized in all research endeavors.

Lots More Information

Author's Note

There is no denying that involving living, breathing humans in medical studies have produced some invaluable results, but there's that one medical saying most of us know, even if we're not in a medical field: first do no harm (or, if you're fancy, primum non nocere).

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