A Brief History of the US Experimenting on Humans

The trouble with talking about America's human experiments is that you instantly sound like a doomsday-prepping, conspiracy-spouting whackjob. To combat that stereotype, here's a rundown of some of the officially-documented ones we've carried out.

Dec 24 2014, 7:40pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

When the CIA torture report was declassified on December 9, we learned that "experimentation" played a role in the stuff we were doing to those in our custody. When the enhanced interrogation program started up in 2002, interrogation contractors James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen adapted a theory from pop psychology called "learned helplessness," for use as an interrogation strategy.

The concept was untested, except on dogs. Their attempts to first bring about learned helplessness in humans, and then to use it in the extraction of reliable military intelligence appear to have been, according to Lisa Hajjar of The Nation, one long series of experiments on humans.

And it's far from the first time the US has done this.

But the trouble with talking about America's human experiments is that you instantly sound like a doomsday-prepping, conspiracy-spouting whackjob jabbering about " chemtrails" when you bring it up. So, to combat that stereotype, here's a rundown of some of the officially-documented ones we've carried out.

Depressingly, there are a lot of cases to sift through. Rather than presenting them chronologically, which would be confusing, I have sorted the events into categories.


Not only is some human experimentation fine, some of it is hilarious. Take NASA's g-force tests, for example. A few people make funny faces and pass out. The government gets data. Everyone wins.

But that doesn't mean safe human experiments are never disturbing, nor that disturbing experiments are always unsafe.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In the heyday of the Cold War, one thing the US military liked to do was test out military strategies on its own people. Testing defenses against someone else's attack was easy enough—the military just ordered thousands of soldiers to submit to mustard gas exposure, or it would expose sailors to chemical weapons without notifying them. But testing how our own attack might work was harder to orchestrate.

Operation LAC, which stands for "large area coverage," was a series of secret chemical and biological weapons tests in 1957 and 1958. The Army Chemical Corps dropped the test chemical zinc cadmium sulfide out of planes, and sprayed it from boats. The compound was spread over various regions of America, some of which were highly populated. After it was declassified, horrified scientists have revisited the experiment to see what damage the chemical did, and the answer is probably none.

But in 1950, Prior to Operation LAC, the US had parked a boat near the Golden Gate Bridge and sprayed San Francisco with a Krispy Kreme-style glaze of the Serratia marcescens bacteria, in order to test the feasibility of a chemical weapons attack. Not long after, a guy in San Francisco named Edward Nevin died of a Serratia marcescens infection in his heart. Also, the result of the test was a resounding "feasible." According to the New York Times, the government "maintains that it believed at the time that the bacteria were harmless."

Over a decade later, the government exposed riders on the New York and Chicago subways to a bacteria called Bacillus subtilis that is mostly harmless. Fortunately that time no one was infected, as far as we know.

But Operation Whitecoat used harmful germs very deliberately. During the Korean War, pacifists were often forced to become medics in the military. Starting in 1953, they were given the opportunity to instead become germ warfare guinea pigs. Participants, called Whitecoats, were exposed to viruses and bacteria, and used to test vaccines. When they were tallied up, none actually died in Fort Detrick, Maryland, where the experiments were conducted. However when they surveyed the Whitecoats decades later, many had suffered from lingering asthma and headaches, and they were only able to get a fourth of the aging—and possibly dead—former members to respond.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Fucked Up:

The second worst thing about The Manhattan Project—the first being the instant annihilation of two cities—was that it brought about dozens of experiments into exactly what radiation does to the human body. The short answer: bad shit.

But apart from famously placing marines in shockingly carcinogenic proximity to nuclear blasts, the government also helped fund experiments that simply put radioactive material right into people's bodies. These included plutonium, polonium, radium, thorium, and others, according to a 1986 report by congress called American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments on U.S. Citizens.

The report included experiments by the private sector, but the government also participated in dozens of experiments over the course of 30 years. In many cases, the patients tested by the Atomic Energy Commission or The Manhattan Project had one foot in the grave, but sometimes they tested healthy people, some of whom died as soon as three years after exposure to what seemed like insignificant quantities of radioactive material. They asked people to eat nuclear fallout, irradiated cattle in pastures to see what would happen to people who drank the milk and ate the beef, and just injected the stuff right into people.

In a somewhat scary break from the whole nuclear theme during this era, the Army Chemical Corps released millions of mosquitoes in Florida and Georgia in 1956 and 1958 to see if they could be weaponized in order to spread yellow fever. They then studied the increase in bites in the local population. The rationale was, apparently, that those particular mosquitoes weren't carrying yellow fever when they were released. But that doesn't matter so much when documentation at the time shows that yellow fever was already in those areas, and they had just massively increased the presence of a vector that could spread it.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Liftarn.


Then the military got its hands on hallucinogens.

For whatever reason, American military brass had funny ideas about what you could do with drugs: interrogate people, develop telepathy, and create Manchurian Candidate-style brainwashed assassins living behind enemy lines, unwittingly waiting for the secret signal. None of that was actually possible, and drugs really just make you act weird if the dose is right, act mentally ill if the dose is wrong, or act dead if the dose is really really wrong.

I've already spilled plenty of ink writing about the CIA's mind control experiments. Suffice it to say: from the 1940s through the 1960s, America made a lot of people dead and mentally ill by dosing them with drugs.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Herbert L. Fred, MD


You probably learned about the diabolical Tuskegee syphilis experiment in high school, but if not, I'll fill you in. It was perpetrated against rural black men who thought they were getting free healthcare from the US Public Health Service, but were actually being given syphilis, which they were tricked into not treating as the disease progressed over the course of 40 years until the experiment was leaked to the press in 1972.

By that time, 128 of the test subjects had died, 40 of the men's wives had been infected, and nine children had been born with it.

But did you know that the Tuskegee experiment was some of those researchers' second rodeo? And while it may seem impossible, the earlier experiment sounds like it was even more awful.

The first experiment took place in Guatemala, where National Institutes of Health-funded researchers ran tests on 696 mental patients, prostitutes, and prisoners in order to study penicillin. The inoculations of syphilis and gonorrhea weren't all simple injections in the arm, though. They administered the germs by scratching them into people's skin, and even pouring and injecting them into their genitals.

The recent torture experiments harken back to how America has experimented on prisoners, something nazi scientists pointed to as a justification for their human experiments during the Nuremberg Trials. The experiment the nazis were referring to was the Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Trial, in which mosquitoes were used to infect prisoners with malaria. The infected were then treated with effective new antimalarials. One infected prisoner died, but researchers claim it was unrelated. America was pretty pleased with itself about the whole thing until the nazis rubbed their faces in it.

The National Institutes of Health had a small crisis of conscience and created the Nuremberg Code, a list of ten principles compiled as a more mature way of going "No, shut up! What we did was different, OK?"

The actual items listed in the Nuremberg Code are interesting to read in light of the recent CIA torture experiments, particularly when you consider that they were written with prisoners in mind. Here are summaries of all ten items:

  1. Informed consent is crucial.
  2. The experiment must benefit society.
  3. The experiment must be based on the results of animal experimentation.
  4. Avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.
  5. Do not cause death or disability.
  6. The degree of risk should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance.
  7. Protect the experimental subject.
  8. The experiment should be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons.
  9. The human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he has reached the physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems to him to be impossible.
  10. The scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate the experiment at any stage if something goes wrong.

This list, which informs medical law in much of the US, is how we theoretically sort out ethical experiments from unethical ones. If you go back and compare the list to each of the events, you can see which rules were violated, and which were obeyed.

It would be great to see progress, and demonstrate that the United States' Human Rights Record is improving, but using these rules as a metric would prove the opposite. In fact, it's hard to argue that the CIA obeyed more than four of the ten Nuremberg rules. Although to their credit, the recent experiments were certainly "based on the results of animal experimentation." So at least there's that.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

Vice Channels