16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans

Trista - October 14, 2018

Conspiracy theorists are often criticized for being a bit too far “out there” in the claims that they make on the United States government. After all, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the attacks of September 11, 2001, were most certainly not an inside job. Right? Maybe, maybe not. But there is a vast collection of cruel and inhumane experiments that have been documented and, in some cases, declassified by the CIA, which make some Hollywood enactments of government conspiracies look like child’s play.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
Rollins Edwards, who lives in Summerville, S.C., shows one of his many scars from exposure to mustard gas in World War II military experiments. More than 70 years after the exposure, his skin still falls off in flakes. For years, he carried around a jar full of the flakes to try to convince people of what happened to him.
Amelia Phillips Hale for NPR

1. Mustard Gas Tests on African-American Soldiers

Before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, there was World War II. And World War II meant the rise of chemical weapons. To understand how the threats of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan might affect soldiers, the United States military came up with a brilliant plan: expose soldiers unwittingly to mustard gas to see how what it does. But seeing as this was the age of eugenics and race theory, it wasn’t enough to test mustard gas. The military had to prove how mustard gas affected people of different races.

African-American soldiers, who knew better than to turn down an assignment, would be hoarded unknowingly into closed rooms that were then filled with mustard gas, turning the rooms into veritable gas chambers. The soldiers were sworn to secrecy, so even after the war, they were unable to tell doctors what they had been exposed to and were therefore unable to obtain medical treatment. Many of these human test subjects went their entire lives without receiving any compensation or medicine for their injuries.

In the 1990s, the government acknowledged that it had performed tests on soldiers who did not know what they were being exposed to mustard gas. Only later, in congressional hearings, did it come to light that the subjects in many of these experiments were grouped by race.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
Subject receiving electroshock therapy as part of MK-Ultra. Guestlist.net

2. MK-Ultra Mind-Control Experiments

During the Cold War, there was a widespread fear in the United States government that the communist East was experimenting with mind-control techniques on American citizens, particularly those being held as prisoners of war in Vietnam and Korea. The only way to get ahead was to beat them at their own game by achieving mind control first. The logic works perfectly. Until you get to the actual experiments that were done on people in the quest to attain mind control.

In 1953, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Allan Dulles, approved Project MK-Ultra to develop mind-control techniques using means such as psychedelic drugs, electroshock therapy, and people with paralysis. Experiments began with the use of LSD and moved on to heroin, “magic mushrooms,” barbiturates, and other drugs that are now illegal. They occurred mainly on college campuses, possibly because college students would be all too eager to engage in the use of psychedelic drugs. Many had no idea that they were participating in mind-control experiments.

One of the subjects in the experiments was Ken Kesey, who went on to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The trials finally ended in 1973, and in 1975, President Ford established a committee to investigate illegal activity performed by the CIA. The revelations of MK-Ultra led to an executive order that any experiments involving the use of drugs had to require consent from the individual person participating in the study.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
Mosquitoes are notorious for spreading diseases. Orkin.com

3. Mosquito Swarms Released in American Cities to Spread Dengue Fever

Any sense of ethics that might have been gained following the horrors of World War II were apparently lost in the fervor to win the Cold War. The government’s tactic seemed to be to strike first, and that strike was usually on American citizens who had no idea what was going on. In the hot and humid American South, which is notorious for its bug populations, swarms of mosquitoes were released over Georgia and Florida via helicopters. The intention was to see how capable the mosquitoes would be of transmitting diseases such as yellow fever and dengue fever.

Government researchers tracked how quickly the swarms of mosquitoes spread, entered people’s houses, and bit them. They found that within one day, the mosquitoes could spread as far as two miles. The experiment showed that mosquitoes could be so successful at waging biological warfare in Asia that the army’s Engineering Command designed a plant that could breed 130 million mosquitoes per month, just to spread diseases.

The records for the project were finally released when the Church of Scientology pressed for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. It is not known how many people died because of the diseases spread by the mosquitoes.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
Frederico Ramos and Benjamin Ramos. National Archives and Records Administration / Slate.com

4. Guatemalans Were Deliberately Infected With Syphilis, Gonorrhea, and Other STDs.

In the 1940s, military service for young men in Guatemala was all but obligatory. During that time, the United States government was beginning to do extensive tests on biological warfare and needed test subjects. They became particularly concerned about syphilis, gonorrhea, and other STDs, at least in part because these diseases were costing the military a lot of workforces, amounting to a total of seven million working days being taken off every year by soldiers who suffered from them. Given the nature of other biomedical experiments performed during this period, one can’t rule out the possibility of wanting to infect foreign militaries with the diseases.

The experiments actually began on prison inmates, who were promised $100 in exchange for being intentionally infected with an STD and then given a prophylactic, which was believed to prevent the disease from developing. It proved to be a bust, so the experimenters decided to move to a population that was, in their minds at least, even more, expendable than prisoners: Guatemalans. The experimenters began by infecting prostitutes, who were then encouraged to have sex with soldiers to see how quickly the disease would spread. They went on to apply the pathogens directly onto the soldiers’ bodies and even injected them into their bloodstreams.

The experiments came to light in 2003, when researchers at Wellesley University were trying to study the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (see below). It turns out, some of the researchers from the Guatemalan experiment went on to spearhead the Tuskegee one. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton formally apologized for what happened, but the damage to so many Guatemalans and their offspring was already done.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
The heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen was largely forgotten in the years to come. Tuskegee Airmen Collections / library.ucr.edu

5. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment is probably the most infamous experiment in biological warfare that the United States government conducted. Tuskegee University in Alabama is historically a predominantly African-American college. It rose to national prominence because of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first African-American aviators and fought during World War II. However, the men’s patriotism was not rewarded, as the university became the site for an extremely unethical study on syphilis.

While the government may not have intentionally infected people with syphilis, as it did in the case of the Guatemalan military, what it did cause irreparable harm to those already suffering from it. Researchers and doctors told patients that they were being treated for syphilis, when all the while, they were being given “dummy” treatments that contained no medication. The idea was to watch how the disease progressed in people’s bodies, with the intent of finding a cure for the illness that was costing the military a lot of human resources.

The experiment began to come to light in the 1970s, and a major lawsuit was filed on behalf of those who had been effectively denied the treatment that they believed they were receiving. Today, the experiment stands as a hallmark of the need for medical ethics.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
Major (later General) Shirō Ishii, in 1932. Masao Takezawa – Bulletin of Unit 731 / Wikipedia.

6. The US Grants Immunity to War Criminal in Exchange For His “Research”

Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous “doctor” in Nazi Germany who conducted “medical experiments” on Jews at Auschwitz, particularly identical twins, tends to get all the credit for medical evils conducted in the twentieth century. His name should not ever be whitewashed, but he was far from the only doctor to perform cruel experiments on unwitting subjects. Enter Dr. Shiro Ishii of Japan, who, beginning in 1932 and until the end of World War II, conducted tests in biological warfare by performing unnecessary surgeries on people without the use of anesthesia.

The experiments of Dr. Mengele were considered to be pseudoscientific at best, but for some reason, the United States wanted the data that Dr. Ishii had gleaned through such horrifyingly cruel means. At the end of World War II when war criminals were being prosecuted, Dr. Ishii and all of his colleagues were scheduled to face a tribunal.

However, Dr. Edwin Hill and General Douglas MacArthur believed that the data on biological warfare was invaluable, especially considering that it could not be gained in the United States because of ethical restrictions. Dr. Ishii was not only granted immunity for his crimes but was also allowed to travel to the United States, where he continued to carry out experiments on biological weapons.

Related: Unit 731: The True Story Behind Japan’s WWII Human Experiment Division.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
Agent Orange was sprayed copiously on the Vietnam jungles. Military.com

7. Prisoners Were Injected With Agent Orange

Agent Orange is a powerful herbicide, invented by the Dow chemical company; the United States military utilized it during the Vietnam War. The dense jungles of Vietnam were causing problems for the soldiers who were trying to get around the country, so the solution was to kill off as many plants as possible. The consequences of the heavy use of Agent Orange include severe congenital disabilities and other physical ailments that are still being experienced by the Vietnamese people who were exposed to it.

The harmful effects of Agent Orange were probably known before it was sprayed profusely in the jungles of Vietnam, thanks to the fact that Dr. Albert Kligman was paid $10,000 by Dow to test dioxin, the active ingredient in Agent Orange, on 75 prisoners at Pennsylvania’s Holmesburg prison. Those records were not kept or were destroyed, as efforts to identify the subjects during the 1980s were unsuccessful. However, inmates who were subjects in Dr. Kligman’s skin experiments showed extensive skin problems, including scarring and rashes, for years to come.

Dr. Kligman went on to develop Retin-A, which is used today to treat acne and other skin conditions. One might conclude that he was rewarded for the crimes he committed against prisoners, but his name lives in infamy.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
Engineers drilling and weighing a plutonium casting in one of the glove boxes at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment. Photo: Reg Birkett/Keystone/Getty Images

8. People Were Injected With Radioactive Elements

While developing the atomic bomb via the Manhattan Project, the United States government reasonably concluded that it needed to understand what it was dealing with and the power behind it. Oppenheimer and others who led the project knew, in a worst-case scenario, what they were doing could cause the earth’s atmosphere to catch on fire and end life on earth. Thus, it made perfect sense to run some experiments to see what the effects of radiation would be on people. And what better way to test radiation than on involuntary subjects?

In one experiment, weapons-grade plutonium – a highly radioactive element that is produced as a byproduct of nuclear fission – was injected into the bloodstreams of 18 unconsenting patients. Outside of the body, plutonium is pretty harmless and is stopped by barriers such as the skin. Once inside the body, though, it destroys DNA from within and drastically increases the risk of cancer; high doses can kill within seconds. Only five of the 18 patients lived longer than 20 years.

In other experiments, women and children were given food and drink that had been laced with radioactive elements. But testing living subjects wasn’t enough. The government exhumed bodies of people who had died from the exposure to radiation to see the continued effects of radiation on their corpses.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
An American C-119 “Boxcar,” of the sort used to dust the Midwest with bacteria. Wikimedia Commons

9. Bacteria Were Intentionally Sprayed Into San Francisco

During World War II, President Roosevelt realized that he needed to assess the vulnerability of the United States to different forms of attack, including biological attacks with microbes. He created the biological warfare bureau to determine what the weaknesses were and how to address them. What this meant is that, over the course of over 20 years, the government intentionally inundated cities with bacteria, viruses, spores, and other pathogens that they believed would be harmless.

One of the first tests occurred in September 1950, when a navy vessel blasted bacteria into a cloud of fog that was making its way from the San Francisco Bay towards the city itself. Afterward, the government contacted local hospitals to see how many people had been infected. They expected that only a few would have gotten sick and needed hospitalization, but turns out, thousands were hospitalized, and one person may have actually died. Nevertheless, the experiments continued.

In 1966, another one of these biological warfare experiments was conducted in the New York City subways, when light bulbs filled with bacteria known to cause food poisoning were put onto the subway tracks. The idea was to see if the momentum from the trains would propel the pathogens forward. The conclusion: it could. In fact, the bacteria placed at 14th Street were found as far as 59th Street. None of the people riding the subway were compensated for ensuing illness.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
Dr. Cornelius Rhoads was featured on the cover of Time on June 27, 1949. Cover Credit: Boris Artzybasheff/content.time.com

10. Infecting Puerto Rico With Cancer

Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, who graduated from Harvard University with a degree in pathology, had an esteemed career with the United States government. He established the US Army Biological Warfare facilities in Panama, Utah, and Maryland so that the government could work on developing chemical weapons. Later, he was named to the US Atomic Energy Commission to study the effects of radiation.

If the sound of a government-appointed doctor conducting radiation experiments sounds a bit shady, there’s a reason why. Before Rhoads rose through the ranks, in 1931, he performed a horrible medical test in Puerto Rico in which he intentionally infected people with cancer cells. At least 13 people died as a result of his experiment.

What’s even more shocking, though, is the confession he wrote about his research, which mimics the horrible work done by German, Italian, and Japanese “doctors” during World War II: “The Porto Ricans (sic) are the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever to inhabit this sphere… I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off eight and transplanting cancer into several more… All physicians take delight in the abuse and torture of the unfortunate subjects.”

In 1979, the American Association for Cancer Research began issuing the Cornelius Rhoads prize for exceptional research. In 2003, the issuance of that medal was rescinded.

Also Read: Evil Doctors and Scientists From World War II.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
In this June 25, 1945 picture, army doctors expose patients to malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the malaria ward at Stateville Penitentiary in Crest Hill, Ill. AP/foxnews.com

11. Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Experiment

During World War II, there was considerable concern about the potential for mass malaria infections, either as a result of biological warfare or just as a result of so many soldiers being stationed in the South Pacific. Furthermore, the medicine traditionally used to treat malaria – quinine – was in short supply because the Japanese had control of its quantity, vis-à-vis their power of Indonesia and the Philippines. To research malaria, particularly for devising alternative treatments, the government turned to a high-security prison: the Stateville Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois, where it offered prisoners a financial incentive of $25 to be voluntarily infected with malaria.

The particular strain used to infect the prisoners is one that is known to be resistant to quinine and also to create multiple relapses. The prisoners were treated exclusively with untested medications, which were sometimes given at doses that researchers believed would be toxic. One of the prisoners died from receiving a fatal treatment of drugs to treat malaria. In addition to serving as test subjects, the prisoners were used to recruit other prisoners as test subjects and even to fulfill roles like X-ray technicians and performing the dissection of mosquitoes. In other words, not only were they paid $25 to be infected with an untreatable form of malaria, but they were also experimented upon by other prisoners rather than trained medical personnel.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
A page from The Washington Post describing the LSD drug operation with the CIA. The Washington Post/ripleys.com

12. Operation Midnight Climax

Operation Midnight Climax was a CIA experiment designed to test the effects of LSD and other mind-altering drugs as a part of its mind-control research program. To ensure maximum efficacy, the medications needed to be tested on people who were not aware of the drugs being administered, so the CIA recruited prostitutes, who were put onto the government payroll. However, they weren’t the ones taking the pills. No, they were luring people to brothels, strategically located in New York City and San Francisco. The government was operating inside brothels.

When people visited the brothels, the prostitutes took them into the back and coaxed them into being injected with the drugs. Government officials from behind one-way glass then watched the subjects. In addition to studying the effects of LSD on people who had been coerced into taking it, the study became a hallmark for researching things like sexual blackmail and the wrong use of surveillance technology. The program was finally shut down in 1965 when the “safe houses” that had been cleverly disguised as brothels were exposed. The CIA director later apologized for the experiments on the San Francisco evening news.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
Project Artichoke tried to create a real-life Manchurian candidate. Sleepbutawhile.com

13. Project Artichoke: Complete Mind Control

The ultimate goal of the CIA’s research into mind-control techniques was to uncover a means of getting someone to do the bidding of another, entirely against his or her own will. One of the most diabolical schemes invented as part of this research was Project Artichoke, which used means such as forced morphine addiction and withdrawal, hypnosis, complete isolation, and sensory deprivation to try to create amnesia and thereby inhibit the person’s ability to make decisions of his or her own volition. In other words, they were trying to create their very own Manchurian candidate.

Most of the experimentation was conducted overseas, in places like Europe, the Philippines, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Declassified documents revealed that one of the project’s goals was to coerce a citizen to assassinate under the guise of hypnosis, whether or not he or she was a willing participant. One conclusion of the project was that an involuntary assassination probably could not happen because the effects of hypnosis are limited and brainwashing someone is more difficult than one might think. Still, a handwritten note at the end of the project files concluded that the task – presumably of involuntary assassination – would be carried out despite operational limitations.

In other words, declassified CIA documents from the Cold War era provide the perfect plots for Hollywood movies.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
Animals are frequently the subjects of experiments. iStock/Artfully79/Artificialintelligence-news.com

14. Government-Sponsored Experiments on Animals

Using animals as test subjects is a pretty contentious issue today, and many people are becoming vegetarians and even vegans (people who do not use or consume any animal products, including dairy) in the effort to live in such a way that is ethical towards the animal kingdom. Today, two powerful, quasi-legislative government agencies – the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) require that many products be tested on animals before they can be sold to the general public.

For pesticides to be approved for public use, they must first be used on dogs, who are shoved into “inhalation chambers” that are then pumped full of the pesticide. The chemicals being tested are placed onto the eyes and shaved skin of rabbits. Fluoride products, like toothpaste and mouthwash, must be tested on rats’ teeth for two weeks. The rats are then decapitated to examine the effects of fluoride.

There are many challenges against the use of animal testing, one of the most common being that knowing how a product affects animals does not indicate how it will affect humans. Still, animals remain the government’s most popular guinea pigs (pun intended) for its experiments.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
The “Baker” explosion was part of Operation Crossroads, which was a nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on July 25, 1946. The wider, exterior cloud is actually just a condensation cloud caused by the Wilson chamber effect. United States Department of Defense/Wikipedia Public Domain

15. Nuclear Testing in the South Pacific

With the advent of the nuclear age and the Cold War, the United States was keen on carrying out extensive testing of atomic weapons. One challenge was in determining where to carry out the tests, seeing as there was no need to unleash lethal radiation within the United States. The territory was outsourced to the Pacific Islands, an area of tiny nations that had been struggling to assert autonomy and self-determination in a postcolonial world. Over 300 nuclear tests were conducted in the Pacific Islands and Australia – dubbed the Pacific Proving Grounds – during the Cold War.

Citizens who lived in the Pacific Islands were vehemently opposed to the testing being carried out. Not only was marine life being decimated by the experiment, but the nuclear fallout was drifting into the civilian communities. Many of them developed congenital disabilities; in fact, the radiation was so severe that many of the children of those initially exposed to it developed cancer as a result. Essentially, the entire population of the Pacific Islands was turned into unwilling guinea pigs.

The different island nations created various treaties and organizations to oppose the testing on their sovereign lands, but these were ignored. Many are still engaged in the push for global nuclear disarmament.

16 of the Worst Experiments the Government Performed On Humans
Dr. Eugene Saenger defended his radiation experiments that killed many poor African-Americans. flickr/marshall thomas

16. Impoverished Cancer Patients Were “Treated” With High-Level Radiation

At the height of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear fallout was imminent, and there was a question of whether the idea of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) would prevent the use of nuclear weapons by the Soviets, the government needed to understand how much radiation a human body could sustain. Rather than traveling to another country, like Guatemala or Puerto Rico, to perform unethical medical experiments, the government decided to use a vulnerable population in the United States: poor African Americans who have cancer.

Dr. Eugene Saenger, who was sponsored by the Pentagon to carry out the experiments at the University of Cincinnati, subjected the patients to whole-body radiation equal to 20,000 chest X-rays over the course of one hour. Nevertheless, at the time, whole-body radiation was known to have no positive effects on the types of cancer being “treated.” Many of the patients died from radiation poisoning rather than cancer.

In the 1990s, a new congressional investigation was opened up regarding the experiments. Dr. Saenger and his attorney insisted that the research was validly carried out for cancer treatment.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“MK-Ultra,” by editors of history.com. A&E Television Networks, history.com online collections. June 16, 2017.

“Secret World War II Chemical Experiments Tested Troops By Race,” by Caitlin Dickerson. National Public Radio. June 22, 2015.

“The Tragic Aftermath of Mustard Gas Experiments in World War II”. Marissa Fessenden. Smithsonian Magazine. November 5, 2015

“Shiro Ishii.” Wikipedia.

“Swarms of mosquitoes, the type notorious for transmitting yellow…,” by Daniel F. Gilmore. UPI Archives. October 29, 1980.

“Inside The U.S. Government’s Secret 30-Year Radiation Experiment On Its Citizens,” by Richard Stockton. All That’s Interesting. May 3, 2016.

“Experimentation on Prisoners: Persistent Dilemmas in Rights and Regulations,” by Keramet Reiter. California Law Review. April 2009.

“The 6 Most Evil Human Experiments Perpetrated By The U.S. Government,” by Richard Stockton. October 24, 2017.

“1931: Cornelius Rhoades, MD.” Alliance for Human Research Protection.

“Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study.” Wikipedia.

Released CIA Documents from Operation Midnight Climax

“The CIA’s Operation ‘Midnight Climax’ Was Exactly What It Sounded Like”. War Is Boring. Medium. Sep 17, 2016

“Document Friday: Project ARTICHOKE, or the CIA Attempt to Create an Unwitting Assassin Through Hypnosis,” by Nate Jones. Unredacted. April 23, 2010.

“Project Artichoke.” Wikipedia.

“U.S. Government Animal Testing Programs.” PE

“25 Images of the Nazi Medical Experiments: Murderous Doctors and Tortured Patients”. Jacob Miller. History Collection. July 28, 2017