“First, do no harm,” is the oath taken by physicians the world over. And this has been the case for centuries now. For the most part, these men and women of science stay faithful to this oath, even defying orders to the contrary. But sometimes they not only break it, they do so in the worst way imaginable. There have been numerous instances of doctors and other scientists going way beyond the limitations of what’s moral or ethical in the name of ‘progress’. They have used humans as experimental guinea pigs for their tests.
In many cases, the test subjects were either kept in ignorance about what an experiment involved or they were simply in no position to offer their resistance or consent. Of course, it may well be the case that such dubious methods produced results. Indeed, some of the most controversial experiments of the past century produced results that continue to inform scientific understanding to this day. But that will never mean such experiments will be seen as just. Sometimes, the perpetrators of cruel research lose their good names or reputations. Sometimes they are prosecuted for their attempts to ‘play God’. Or sometimes they just get away with it.
You might want to brace yourself as we look at the ten weirdest and cruelest human experiments carried out in history:
Dr. Shiro Ishii and Unit 731
During World War II, Imperial Japan committed a number of crimes against humanity. But perhaps few were crueler than the experiments that were conducted at Unit 731. Part of the Imperial Japanese Army, this was a super-secret unit dedicated to undertaking research into biological and chemical weapons. Quite simply, the Imperial authority wanted to build weapons that were deadlier – or just crueler – than anything that had gone before. And they weren’t opposed to using human guinea pigs to test their creations.
Based in Harbon, the biggest city of Manchuko, the part of north-east China that Japan made its puppet state, Unit 731 was constructed between 1934 and 1939. Overseeing its construction was General Shiro Ishii. Though he was a medical doctor, Ishii was also a fanatical soldier and so he was happy to set his ethics aside in the name of total victory for Imperial Japan. In all, it’s estimated that as many as 3,000 men, women and children were used as forced participants in the experiments conducted here. For the most part, the horrific tests were carried out on Chinese people, though prisoners-of-war, including men from Korea and Mongolia, were used.
For more than five years, General Ishii oversaw a wide range of experiments, many of them of dubious medical value to say the least. Thousands were subjected to vivisections, usually without anaesthetic. Often, these were fatal. Countless types of surgery, including brain surgery and amputations, were also carried out without anaesthetic. At other times, inmates were injected directly with diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhoea, or with chemicals used in bombs. Other twisted experiments included tying men up naked outside and observing the effects of frostbite, or simply starving people and seeing how long they took to die.
Once it was clear Japan was going to lose the war, General Ishii tried to destroy all evidence of the tests. He burned down the facilities and swore his men to silence. He needn’t have worried. Senior researchers from Unit 731 were granted immunity by the U.S. In exchange, they contributed their knowledge to America’s own biological and chemical weapons programs. For decades, any stories of atrocities were dismissed as ‘Communist Propaganda’. In more recent years, the Japanese government has acknowledged the Unit’s existence as well as its work, though it maintains most official records have been lost to history.