The inscription on the gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp (Poland): "Work makes you free."
The experiments conducted on prisoners in World War II continue to haunt us today.

What history has shown us

The race for knowledge at the cost of our humanity has made the world understandably cautious when it comes to some forms of research.

Let’s look back to some significant events that ultimately changed the way we undertake research today. Each are characterised by a misuse of power and a flagrant disregard for the well-being of the research subject.

These cases are drawn from a range of geographical regions and each of them are confronting. If you prefer, feel free to skip the information in the following paragraphs and move straight to our conclusion at the end of this step. Our goal is to reflect, not upset.

The Tuskegee experiment

To assess the natural progression of untreated syphilis in African American males, the U.S. Public Health Service recruited a group of 600 men from Tuskegee (Alabama USA) for their research. Approximately two thirds of the group had latent syphilis and the other third without the disease were used as the control group. The participants were deceived about the true nature of the study and lured in by a false advertising campaign: ‘Last chance for special free treatment’ (Brandt, 1978). They believed they were being treated for ‘bad blood’, however there was no intention to ever provide treatment (CDC, 2017).

It was argued the experiment was designed to benefit others in the future, however it failed to consider the depth of harm caused to the individual men and their families. Apart from the lack of consent, the research included a painful and dangerous spinal tap procedure (Brandt, 1978). The unethical aspects of this study became more troubling, when the men continued to be denied penicillin even when it had been shown to successfully treat the disease (CDC, 2017).

The experiment continued for almost 40 years (1932-1972), stopping only after public outcry when the media revealed what was going on (Brandt, 1978). The US government continues to make financial restitution to family members of the surviving participants (CDC, 2017).

Porton Down

Approximately 11,000 men were exposed to mustard and liquid nerve gas, as well as acids and other chemicals, in U.K. government run military experiments conducted between 1939 and 1989 (Evans, 2006). The consent procedures are highly questionable and the experiments were dangerous. Chemical substances were applied directly to the skin and eyes of the participants (Evans, 2006). In Britain’s longest running inquest, its Ministry of Defence eventually paid compensation to hundreds of Cold War veterans who suffered as a result of the Porton Down experiments in 2008.

World War II medical experiments

Nazi doctor, Josef Mengeles, performed horrific experiments on hundreds of pairs of twins during the war to better understand genetics. For example, some pairs of twins were euthanised simultaneously and autopsied, others had organs and other body parts removed without anaesthetic. Some had their eyes removed and compared for further study (Korda, 2006).

The depravity of this research epitomises the Nazi’s treatment of concentration camp prisoners. In their captive state, thousands were subjected to inhumane and often lethal research experiments. The prisoners used in these experiments died from hypothermia, tuberculosis, malaria, typhoid and a host of other inflicted injuries and diseases administered in the pursuit of ‘knowledge’ (Korda, 2006).

The Imperial Japanese army were also (less infamously) responsible for equally disturbing research experiments conducted on their own prisoners of war at the time. Read Tia Powell’s Cultural Context in Medical Ethics: Lessons from Japan if you would like to learn more.


Looking into our past and identifying events that have shaped our modern consciousness of ethics is a confronting and often emotional experience.

The purpose of this step is to highlight some events from our collective past that are impossible to ignore. Events that demanded we formulate a response to help prevent them from ever occurring again. They were each a catalyst that led us to consider the question - How far should we go in the search for knowledge? At what point have we ‘crossed the line’?

Modern day researchers may at times complain about the inconvenient, time consuming or limiting nature of the Ethics Review Committee requirements. This may well be true, however it’s important to remember our world’s history when it comes to research ethics. If the new protocols seem unwieldy at times, we must also consider the cost of past actions, when individual morals ruled the day.

Your task

The debate continues today as to whether it’s ethical to use the results of unethical research undertaken in World War II. How do you feel about research that’s been conducted unethically? Select the comments link and share your thoughts with the group.

Remember to use the 3Cs when you are responding to each other’s comments.


Brandt, A.M. (1978). Racism and Research: The Case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The Hastings Center Report, 8(6).

CDC. Centres for Disease Control & Protection. (2017). U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. The Tuskegee Timeline

Evans, R. (2006). Porton Down Chemical Weapons Test Unethical, says Report. The Guardian.

Korda, A. (2006). The Nazi medical experiments. ADF Health, 7, 33-37.

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This article is from the free online course:

Why Ethics Matter: Ethical Research

Griffith University