US human experiments: Another unnoticed crime against humanity
Published: Nov 02, 2022 06:34 PM
Look, Uncle Sam is busy cleaning up its own mess on human rights problems. Does the US still think it's the beacon of human rights? Illustration: GT

Look, Uncle Sam is busy cleaning up its own mess on human rights problems. Does the US still think it's the beacon of human rights? Illustration: GT

"We formally extended an apology to those who were subjected to inhumane and horrific abuse from the experiments conducted at Holmsburg Prison from the 1950s to 1970s," tweeted Jim Kenney, mayor of Philadelphia, on October 6. This has brought back to the public the Philadelphia-operated prison, nicknamed "The Terrordome," which was closed in 1995. The facility also revived memories of the dark history of government-sponsored human experiments in the US.

Between 1951 and 1974, in Holmsburg Prison, an American medical expert named Albert Kligman, in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania and the prison officials, tested hazardous, even potentially lethal, substances such as herpes simplex, herpes zoster, radioactive isotopes, dioxin, and chemical warfare agents on the inmates. Small stipends were paid to the subjects, but the damage to their bodies was proved to be irreversible. Kligman unashamedly said of the prisoners "all I saw before me were acres of skin." The tests went on until 1974 when public outcry prompted the researchers to shut down the program. According to Allen M. Hornblum, a journalist and former criminal justice official in Philadelphia, what happened in the prison were "abuse, moral indifference, and greed."

The episode is only a tip of the iceberg in the US's history of human experiments. Right before the infamous Holmsburg experiment, another "study" conducted at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1931 to 1972 also stirred up controversy. Under a program conducted by the US Public Health Service (USPHS) and the Tuskegee Institute, sharecroppers, mostly African Americans, were recruited as subjects to a study on the effects of syphilis on the human body. Without being fully informed about the potential consequences beforehand, many of the infected men died during the experiment; yet the experiment continued even after antibiotics that could treat the disease were made widely available. 

The US government has no mercy on its own citizens, let alone foreign nationals. Between 1946 and 1948, over 5,500 Guatemalan prisoners, sex workers, soldiers, children, and psychiatric patients were forced to join the experiment. More than one-quarter of them were deliberately infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, or chancroid to observe whether penicillin, then relatively new, could prevent these sexually transmitted diseases. 

In the early 1950s, to find effective tools and drugs that could be used in interrogations to force confessions, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) launched an appalling human experimentation program code-named Project MK-ULTRA, which "used numerous methods to manipulate its subjects' mental states and brain functions," such as injecting high doses of psychoactive drugs and other chemicals, electroshocks, sensory deprivation, verbal and sexual abuse, and so on. Vivisectionists and torturers who had worked in Japan and in Nazi concentration camps were hired to conduct experiments. 

Even children were not spared. A documentary entitled "The Search for Myself" released by Radio Denmark revealed that in the 1960s, over 311 Danish children from orphanages were brought to the basement of a hospital in Copenhagen and subjected to a secret experiment that tried to establish the link between heredity and environment in the development of schizophrenia. The kids were placed on the chair with electrodes on arms, legs, and chest, and tortured with loud and high-pitched sounds to see whether they have psychopathic traits. Per Wennick, filmmaker of the documentary and also a victim of the tests, found out that the research was supported by the Human Ecology Foundation of the US, which acted on behalf of the CIA.

The US likes to portray itself as a "guardian" of human rights and morality. The reality is its human rights record is full of abominable violations of all types committed both domestically and around the world. Should the pious Puritan forebearers knew what their descendants had done, they must be too ashamed to call themselves the "God's chosen ones."

Xin Ping is a commentator on international affairs. He can be reached at xinping604@gmail.com