Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

Allen M. Hornblum, Judith L. Newman, and Gregory J. Dober. Palgrave Macmillan, $27 ISBN 978-0-230-34171-5

From Kirkus Review

The harrowing story of the exploitation of institutionalized children in American medical research.
Until the late 20th century, doctors routinely experimented on the so-called idiots, morons and feebleminded of America’s orphanages and hospitals to test vaccines and procedures. Warehoused in places like the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth, the “genetically unfit” became ready test subjects for cure-seeking researchers from MIT, Harvard and other universities. In their revealing account, Hornblum (Sentenced to Science: One Black Man's Story of Imprisonment in America, 2007, etc.), Newman (Human Development and Family Studies/Penn State, Abington) and medical journalist Dober focus on the personal motives and societal forces that prompted this dark, little-understood chapter in medical history. The publication of Paul De Kruif’s best-selling Microbe Hunters (1926) and other admiring books glorified medical researchers and convinced the public that doctors could do no wrong, and the eugenics movement taught disdain for the weak and institutionalized. Ultimately, the feebleminded became convenient test subjects for unethical experimentation. Many researchers, including dermatologists, dentists and psychologists, were motivated by noble causes; others sought fame and wealth. Like policemen upholding the “blue wall of silence,” the medical establishment looked the other way, knowing full well that experiments involving radiation and crude lobotomies were harmful and conducted without parental consent. The book is filled with vivid stories of researchers, many well-known, spurred on by Cold War pressures to discover cures and preventives, who experimented on children with fungicides, radioactive milk, LSD and birth-control injections. Their work stemmed from “an exploitative ethos that reeked of both eugenics and paternalism,” write the authors, who note that these unethical practices ended several decades ago with the introduction of medical safeguards and oversight committees. They also write that U.S. drug testing has been conducted in China, India and other nations ever since.
A somewhat overwritten eye-opener about medical advances achieved on the backs of society’s weakest members.