Chapter 17 Summary

1954-1966

In the mid-1950s, a researcher named Chester Southam began to worry that HeLa cells might be able to infect researchers with cancer. He was not sure whether cancer was even contagious in this way, so to find out, he began injecting small samples of HeLa into the arms of cancer patients. Some of these patients fought off the foreign cells; others developed tumors. Later, Southam performed similar research on prisoners at the Ohio State Penitentiary, all of whose bodies fought off the cancer cells quickly.

At the time, it was not legally required for doctors to obtain consent from patients used in medical research. Over a period of several years, Southam injected over 600 patients with cancer, often without telling them what he was doing. Southam did not feel that his actions were ethically wrong—but when the public found out, most people disagreed with him.

Southam’s experiment became known to the public through three Jewish doctors who refused to help him with his research. These doctors knew that during World War II, Nazi doctors in Nuremburg had performed “unthinkable” experiments on Jewish subjects. After the war, a tribunal wrote a set of recommendations for medical experimentation called the Nuremburg Code. This code laid out strong patient rights recommendations which seemed quite radical at the time. But doctors in the United States were not legally required to adhere to the Nuremburg Code, and many had not even heard of it.

The Jewish doctors’ objections to Southam’s research seemed unusual and unreasonable to their boss, who declared them “overly sensitive” due to their race. When he simply continued the project without the three doctors, they were appalled. They resigned from their positions and made their objections public. This soon led to a national scandal and a far-reaching debate about medical ethics and research practices.

In response to this scandal, the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York conducted an investigation of Southam’s research. Several of them were horrified—especially when they learned that Southam’s colleagues found nothing wrong with his actions. Most doctors freely admitted to undertaking similar studies themselves.

Soon after this scandal, the Board of Regents and the National Institute of Health issued a strict set of guidelines governing the ethics of medical research. From then on, scientists had to obtain informed consent from patients before using them for research. Scientists said that it would be the end of all medical research, but it was not. The field of medicine continued to advance as fast as ever.