Books

Against Their Will, by Allen M. Hornblum - review

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

6 July 2013

9:00 AM

After the Morecambe Bay Hospital scandal a new era opens of compassion, -whistle-blowing, naming names and possible prosecutions. But what about 70-odd years of harming children in ‘care’ homes, and prisoners, with toxin injections, -radioactive blasts, electro-shocks to the brain and frontal lobotomies — all done in the interests of medical advance by leading American doctors and scientists, one of whom was -awarded a Nobel Prize?

Furthermore, what if the CIA sponsored such work in the interest of defending the US against Soviet threats? We condemned Nazi scientists like Josef Mengele for doing such things, resulting in the 1947 Nuremberg Protocol forbidding experiments and treatments employing ‘force, fraud, deceit, duress, overreaching or any ulterior form of constraint or coercion’ — a document, this invaluable book states, which most medical students and doctors have never seen.

Against Their Will is not about sadists, Nazis or crazies. In part, it’s about men like Jonas Salk, revered for developing the anti-polio vaccine that saved the lives of millions of children — after injecting the polio virus into ‘imbeciles’ to test whether his new anti-virals worked. Or the Portuguese Nobel prizewinner Egas Moniz, who created ‘a scalpel-like metal instrument in the shape of an apple corer and instructed his colleague to cut into the brains of nearly two dozen anxiety-ridden and insane patients’.

In the late 1940s an enterprising American neurologist ‘performed hundreds of prefrontal lobotomies on a vast array of patients, including 11 individuals whose schizophrenia developed before the age of ten’. After Moniz received the Nobel, 20,000 Americans, including children diagnosed with phobias, manic depression and -schizophrenia, underwent lobotomies. These operations took hours until the American neurologist developed a seven-minute procedure for entering the brain through the eye ‘with an ice-pick-like instrument’. There may be Spectator readers old enough to remember such practices here.


These procedures were based on two propositions. The first was cost: lab animals like chimps and even rats are expensive to care for. Prisoners and ‘imbeciles’, however, were already housed and fed; all that was needed was the approval of their -superintendents, who were delighted if -Harvard, Yale or MIT approached them with medical claims and funds.

But far more important was eugenics. This was the belief arising in the late 19th century that genetically inferior human beings, some of them blacks and Jews, together with ‘idiots’, ‘morons’ and ‘imbeciles’, should be prevented from ‘breeding’; and since they could not be exterminated — until Hitler came along — why not use them for the good of mankind?

Not until 1978 was it widely known that several hundred poor Alabama blacks had been infected with syphilis in order to explore a possible cure. In 1945 the Yale School of Medicine and others were involved in introducing faeces laced with hepatitis (disguised in chocolate drinks) into ‘volunteers’ at the Federal Correctional Institution in Conneticut, while at an orphanage in Philadelphia, blood ‘from children with active cases of measles’ was injected into healthy children. Some so-called defectives were castrated because they masturbated too much.

The Alabamans, like virtually all the thousands of others infected with various germs and viruses, or surgically assaulted, were never asked or informed, nor were the parents of incarcerated children; sometimes parents were persuaded that their children were being given ‘medicines’, and prisoners were promised shorter sentences if they cooperated. Some prisoners — and even some children — suddenly realised that something horrible was happening, but the usual response to such complaints was forcible restraint.

I think by now Spectator readers will be horrified enough. But as we wonder if it’s permissible for the security agencies in the US and UK to decide whom to hack or bug, consider this. During the Cold War, the CIA was tasked with secret programmes involving ‘sensory deprivation, brain electrode implants and hypnosis’ intended to counter the alleged Soviet brainwashing of captives, first mentioned during the Korean war, when returned American prisoners claimed that terrible things had been tried out on them. ‘We lived in a never-never land’, said one CIA doctor, ‘of unceasing experimentation. Some embarassing episodes were kept secret for decades so as not to expose America’s own questionable, if not criminal, behaviour.’

One wonders how many of these activities, so vividly and alarmingly laid out in Against Their Will, found their way here as part of the special relationship. And where else? As the book chillingly notes, much medical experimentation by the major pharmaceutical companies is now done in the Third World.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


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