Doctors and psychologists are often seen as trusted pillars of society. Everyone assumes those in the medical community will behave in a correspondingly ethical and humane manner. But, in some cases, that is most definitely not the case.
Historically, sophisticated and well-educated individuals not only ignored medical ethics, but they also seemed intent on devising experiments and clinical analysis deliberately designed to inflict a maximum amount of pain, suffering, permanent injury, and even death. They exploited the vulnerable or the conquered with a cruelty and savagery that contradict the fundamentals of medicine and humanity. While some of these excesses are well known, other lesser-known transgressions are just as shocking and disturbing. Here are seven examples of the cruelest and most brutal human experiments ever performed.
From the moment he arrived at Auschwitz as a medical researcher and doctor in 1943, Dr. Josef Mengele relished the "selection" process that occurred when transports of prisoners arrived at the camp. If he was on duty, Mengele would methodically sort long lines of new arrivals to the left or right. If you were sent to the right, you would be allowed to enter the camp and survive, at least in the short-term; the left meant extermination in the gas chambers within a matter of hours.
Even when he was off-duty, Mengele was enthusiastically present on the railroad platform as the trains rolled in, there to ferret out twins and other people who appeared medically anomalous to him, like dwarves or giants. Twins were an obsession of Mengele's, and while they were not the only group of prisoners he grossly exploited, they were his most prized. The twins under Mengele had a special status and regimen. If Mengele deemed them "valuable" for his research, he allowed them to keep their clothes and hair, and if they were not being subjected to experimentation, he allowed the twins access to rudimentary education and to play soccer.
However, the twins routinely had their blood drawn, with especially small children having blood extracted painfully from their necks. Physical dimensions were diligently examined, measured, and recorded. If the poking, prodding, and measuring didn't prove fruitful for him, Mengele would decide that a particular set of twins was not tall enough or physically fit enough and send them to the gas chamber.
Mengele was also obsessed with blue eyes. Children received extremely painful eye drops or injections of various substances to artificially change their eye color that proved both ineffectual and toxic. Injections of tuberculosis, typhus, and other infectious diseases were administered to one twin and not the other, for example. Eventually, both would be euthanized with injections to the heart with phenolic acid, and their cadavers would be meticulously autopsied. Spinal taps and spinal experimentation were routinely administered without anesthesia. Other complicated surgeries involving amputation, removal of organs, and even castration were also performed without anesthesia.
One survivor described the process enacted upon his brother by Mengele:
One day, my twin brother, Tibi, was taken away for some special experiments. Dr. Mengele had always been more interested in Tibi. I am not sure why - perhaps because he was the older twin. Mengele made several operations on Tibi. One surgery on his spine left my brother paralyzed. He could not walk anymore. Then they took out his sexual organs. After the fourth operation, I did not see Tibi anymore. I cannot tell you how I felt. It is impossible to put into words how I felt. They had taken away my father, my mother, my two older brothers - and now, my twin.
Adding to the diabolical mystique surrounding Josef Mengele, despite his stature as one of the most wanted criminals of the 20th century, he evaded capture and died of natural causes in Brazil in 1979.
The "Little Albert" experiment was a conditioning experiment that might have made sense from a clinical and research perspective, but had appallingly abusive implications. The 1920 experiment conducted by John Watson and Rosalie Rayner involved placing a nine-month-old infant on a mattress and allowing the child only to play with a white rat.
Eventually, behind the child's back, a steel bar would be struck by a hammer whenever the infant touched the rat. This was repeated until the child began to cry and exhibit fear at the sound of the hammer on steel. Then the child was merely presented with only the white rat, which caused the child to exhibit the same crying, fear, and distress. These same reactions would also occur at the sight of many furry objects including a rabbit, a dog, and even a Santa Claus mask.
The psychologists stopped using "Little Albert" as a subject within a few months, and initially no follow up by Watson and Rayner occurred. Because no attempt was made to desensitize him, psychologists became interested in what happened to the infant and whether or not he was permanently impacted by this process. At least two individuals were potentially identified as "Little Albert," but his specific identity and what befell him is still a matter of dispute.
"False Memory Implantation" was a reckless technique introduced by American psychiatrists and psychologists under the guise of legitimate therapy. This methodology involves inducing memories of horrible experiences, abuse, trauma, and fear through hypnosis and various other persuasive procedures. Despite the fabrication of the memories, ultimately the patient begins to believe that they are real.
One of the most famous instances of "False Memory Implantation" involved a Wisconsin woman named Nadean Cool. In 1986, she underwent psychiatric therapy to deal with a traumatic incident involving her daughter. Eventually, she would come to believe she had been part of a Satanic cult, was assaulted, and had witnessed the murder of a childhood friend. She also concluded she had 120 different identities, including those of angels and even animals, and that she was abused as a child.
Her psychiatrist eventually performed exorcisms on her, involving chanting and holy water. Nadean Cool eventually realized her memories were implanted by her psychiatrist, who she successfully sued for malpractice. While her experience is unusual, it is not singularly unique.
Headed by Japanese surgeon general Shiro Ishii during WWII, Unit 731 was involved in procedures that were as shocking as any witnessed during World War II. With a focus on biological and chemical warfare, this unit was located in occupied China and kept as many as 400 prisoners at a time; they were comprised usually, but not exclusively, of POWs.
Unit 731's victims faced unimaginable agony, exposed to anthrax, cholera, and even flamethrowers. Amputation, bizarre anatomical transplants, and vivisections were routinely performed without anesthesia. Ishii frequently asked his staff how many logs had fallen on any given day, "logs" a euphemism for human beings. Unbelievably, at the conclusion of the war, Ishii and his staff negotiated their freedom by offering their biological research to the US government. It was accepted, and Ishii escaped responsibility for his activity. He died in 1959 of natural causes.