The 10 Cruelest Human Experimentation Cases in History
The 10 Cruelest Human Experimentation Cases in History

The 10 Cruelest Human Experimentation Cases in History

D.G. Hewitt - May 20, 2018

The 10 Cruelest Human Experimentation Cases in History
The people of the Marshall Islands got radiation sickness – while American scientists watched on. The Lincoln Center.

Project 4.1

On March 1, 1954, the United States carried out Castle Bravo, testing a nuclear bomb on the Bikini Atoll, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The test not only went without a hitch, it actually went better than expected. The yield produced by the bomb was much higher than scientists had anticipated. At the same time, the weather conditions in this part of the Pacific turned out to be different to what had been predicted. Radiation fallout from the blast was blown upwind, towards the Marshall Islands. But, instead of alerting the islanders to the danger, the project heads sensed an opportunity. How many times would they be able to see the affect of radiation fallout on a population for real?

Making the most of the opportunity, the American scientists simply sat back an observed. That is, they watched innocent people be affected by the fallout of an American nuclear bomb. Over the next decade, the project observers noted an upturn in the number of women on the Marshall Islands suffering miscarriages or stillbirths. But then, after ten years or so, this spike ended. Things seemingly returned to normal, and so scientists were unable – or unwilling – to make any formal conclusions. But then, things started to go downhill again.

At first, children on the Marshall Islands were observed to be growing less than would be expected. But then, it became clear that not only were they suffering from stunted growth, but a higher-than-expected proportion of youngsters were developing thyroid cancer. What’s more, by 1974, the data was showing that one in three islanders had developed at least one tumor. Later analysis, published in 2010, estimated that around half of all cancer cases recorded on the Marshall Islands could be attributed to the 1954 nuclear test, even if people never displayed any obvious signs of radiation poisoning in the immediate aftermath of the explosion.

Given that the initial findings of Project 4.1 as it was known were published in professional medical journals as early as 1955, the American government has never really denied that the experiment took place. Rather, what has been, and continues to be contested, is whether the U.S. actually knew that the islands would be affected before they carried out the test. Many on the Marshall Islands believe that Project 4.1 was premeditated, while the American authorities maintain that it was improvised in the wake of the explosion. The debate continues to rage.

The 10 Cruelest Human Experimentation Cases in History
Sharecroppers in Alabama were denied medicine as part of this cruel experiment. Encyclopedia Brittanica.

The Tuskegee Experiments

For four decades, African-American men in Macon County, Alabama, were told by medical researchers that they had ‘bad blood’. The scientists knew that this was a term used by sharecroppers in this part of the country to refer to a wide range of ailments. They knew, therefore, that they wouldn’t question the prognosis. And neither would they raise any concerns or questions when the same researchers gave them injections. Which is how doctors working on behalf of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) were able to look on as hundreds of men went mad, blind or even died as a result of untreated syphilis.

When the experiment began back in 1932, there was no known cure for syphilis. As such, PHS researchers were determined to make a breakthrough. They went to Tuskegee College in Alabama and enlisted their help. Together, they enlisted 622 African-American men, almost all of them very poor. Of these men, 431 had already contracted syphilis prior to 1932, with the remaining 169 free from the disease. The men were told that the experiment would last for just six years, during which time they would be provided with free meals and medical care as doctors observed the development of the disease.

In 1947, penicillin became the recommended treatment for syphilis. Surely the doctors would give this to the men participating in the Tuskegee Experiment? Not so. Even though they knew the men could be cured, the PHR workers only gave them placebos, including aspirin and even combinations of minerals. With their condition untreated, the men slowly succumbed to syphilis. Some went blind, others went insane, and some died within a few years. What’s more, in the years after 1947, 19 syphilitic children were born to men enrolled in the study.

It was only in the mid-1960s that concerns started to be raised about the morality of the experiment. San Francisco-based PHS researcher Peter Buxton learned about what was happening in Alabama and raised his concerns. However, his superiors were unresponsive. As a result, Buxton leaked the story to a journalist friend. The story broke in 1972. Unsurprisingly, the public were outraged. The experiment was halted immediately, and the Congress inquiries began soon after. The surviving participants, as well as the children of those men who had died, were awarded $10 million in an out-of-court settlement. Finally, in 1993, President Bill Clinton offered a formal and official apology on behalf of the U.S. government to everyone affected by the experiment.

The 10 Cruelest Human Experimentation Cases in History
During the infamous Project MK-Ultra, the CIA gave thousands of people LSD.

Project MK-Ultra

Though they had the Bomb, in the 1950s, the CIA were still determined to enjoy every advantage over their enemies. To achieve this, they were willing to think outside of the box. Perhaps the best example of this was MK-Ultra, a top-secret project where the CIA attempted to alter brain function and explore the possibility of mind control. While much of the written evidence, including files and witness testimonies, were destroyed soon after the experiments were brought to an end, we do know that the project involved a lot of drugs, some sex and countless instances of rule bending and breaking.

Project MK-Ultra was kick-started by the Office of Scientific Experiments at the start of the 1950s. Central to the project was determining how LSD affects the mind – and, more importantly, whether this could be turned to America’s advantage. In order to learn more, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of individuals, were given doses of the drug. In almost all cases, they were given LSD without their explicit knowledge or consent. For example, during Operation Midnight Climax in the early 1960s, the CIA opened up brothels. Here, the male clients were dosed up with LSD and then observed by scientists through one-way mirrors.

The experiments also included subjecting American citizens to sleep deprivation and hypnosis. Not all of the tests went plainly. Several people died as a direct result of Project MK-Ultra, including a US Army biochemist by the name of Frank Olsen. In 1953, the scientist was given a dose of LSD without his knowledge and, just a week later, died after jumping out of a window. While the official reason of his death was recorded as suicide, Olsen’s family have always maintained that he was effectively killed by the CIA.

When President Gerald Ford launched a special Commission on CIA activities in the United States, the work of Project MK-Ultra came to light. Two years previously, however, the-then Director of the CIA, Richard Helms, had ordered all files relating to the experiments to be destroyed. Witness testaments show that around 80 institutions were involved in the experiments, with thousands of people given hallucinogenic drugs, usually by CIA officers with no medical background. And so, in the end, was it all worth it? The CIA has acknowledged that the experiments produced nothing of real, scientific value. Project MK-Ultra has, however, lived on in the popular imagination and has inspired numerous books, video games and movies.

The 10 Cruelest Human Experimentation Cases in History
Soldiers, orphans and prisoners were all infected with syphilis in 1940s Guatemala.

Guatemalan Syphilis Experiment

For more than two years in the middle of the 20th century, the United States worked directly with the health ministries of Guatemala to infect thousands of people with a range of sexually transmitted diseases, above all syphilis. Since they wanted to do this without the study subjects knowing about it – after all, who would give their consent to being injected with syphilis? – it was decided that the experiment should take place in Guatemala, with soldiers and the most vulnerable members of society to serve as the guinea pigs.

The Guatemalan Syphilis Experiment (it was not given an official codename or even a formal project title) began in 1946. It was headed up by John Charles Cutler of the US Public Health Service (PHS). Despite being a physician himself, Cutler was happy to overlook the principle of ‘First, do no harm’ in order to carry out his work. Making use of local health clinics, he tasked his staff with infecting around 5,500 subjects. Most of them were soldiers or prisoners, though mental health patients and prostitutes were also used to see how syphilis and other diseases affect the body. Children living in orphanages were even used for the experiments.

In all cases, the subjects were told they were getting medication that was good for them. And, while all subjects were given antibiotics, an estimated 83 people died. In 1948, with the wider medical community hearing rumors of what was being done in Central America, and with the American government wary of the potential fallout, the experiments were brought to an abrupt end. Cutler would go on to carry out similar experiments in Alabama, though even here he stopped short of actually infecting his subjects with life-threatening diseases.

It was only in 2010, however, that the United States government issued a formal apology to Guatemala for the experiments it carried out in the 1940s. What’s more, President Barack Obama called the project “a crime against humanity”. That didn’t mean that the victims could get compensation, however. In 2011, several cases were put forward but then rejected, with the presiding judge noting that the U.S. government could not be held liable for actions carried out in its name outside of the country. A $1 billion lawsuit against the John Hopkins University and against the Rockefeller Foundation is still open.


The 10 Cruelest Human Experimentation Cases in History
During the Holocaust, twins were specially selected for sick experiments. Yad Vashem.

Mengele’s Twins

A world at war gave the Nazi regime the ideal cover under which they would carry out some of the most horrific human experiments imaginable. At Auschwitz concentration camp, Dr Josef Mengele made full use of the tens of thousands of prisoners available to him. He would carry out unnecessarily cruel and unusual experiments, often with little or no scientific merit. And, above all, he was fascinated with twins. Or, more precisely, with identical twins. These would be the subjects of his most gruesome experiments.

Mengele would personally select prospective subjects from the ramps leading off the transport trains at the entrance to the concentration camp. Initially, his chosen twins were provided with relatively comfortable accommodation, as well as more generous rations than the rest of the inmate population. However, this was just a temporary respite. Mengele’s experiments were as varied as they were horrific. He would amputate one twin’s limbs and then compare the growth of both over the following days. Or he would infect one twin with a disease like typhoid. When they died, he would kill the healthy twin, too, and then compare their bodies.

Gruesomely, the records show that on one particularly bloody night, Mengele injected chloroform directly into the heart of 14 sets of twins. All died almost immediately. Another infamous tale tells of Mengele trying to create his own conjoined twins: he simply stitched two young Romani children back-to-back. They both died of gangrene after several long and painful days. Mengele also had a team of assistants working for him, and they were no less cruel.

Nobody will ever know just how many children or adults were victims of Mengele’s experiments. Despite being meticulous record keepers, the Nazis kept some things secret. Tragically for his victims and their relatives, Mengele never faced justice for his actions. He was smuggled out of Europe by Nazi sympathisers at the end of the war and lived for another 30 years, in hiding, in South America.


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

“Unmasking Horror: A special report.; Japan Confronting Gruesome War Atrocity”. Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times, 1995.

“Little Albert regains his identity”. American Psychology Association, 2010.

“Unit 731: Japan discloses details of notorious chemical warfare division”. Justin McCurry, The Guardian, April 2018.