Human Guinea Pigs; Making Research Ethical

2017 marks 50 years since the publication of Human Guinea Pigs: Experimentation on Man. A book written by Maurice Pappworth, which shone a spotlight on the unethical practices that were at the core of medical research. This book changed the world of medical research; thrusting research into the public eye, and forcing the rights of individuals to mean more that the benefits of medical advances gained through human experimentation.

The situation in 1967

In 1967 the world was a very different place. People really were used as human guinea pigs. Ultimately people held the view that medical research was a necessary process, and that the potential benefits gleamed from it far outweighed the rights, and risks, to individuals involved in it. Effectively, this meant that there are many examples of research conducted without patient consent. This was an accepted, normal practice around the world.

Until Maurice Pappworth turned whistle-blower.

Human Guinea Pigs: Experimentation on Man

Pappworth first published Human Guinea Pigs: Experimentation on Man in 1970. It described horrendous examples of unethical research; 78 individual cases in total, and many of them conducted within the NHS. These cases range from injecting cancer cells, malaria parasites and polio virus into people who had not given consent, to stopping the heart of an 80-year old patient simply to enable clinicians to get better quality angiograms.

How did the book make a difference?

Pappworth wrote honestly, and brutally – and he drove his point home well. The book had a huge impact, chiefly because Pappworth named names. There was no beating around the bush; he went straight in with names researchers, verbatim quotes, and he referenced published articles that described these awful practices as if they were a normal part of humdrum hospital life.

Many publishers rejected the book because they feared the risk of libel laws. Pappworth eventually found a publisher willing to work with him; Beacon Press.

How was treating humans as guinea pigs ever viewed as acceptable?

Many people think that the doctors Pappworth uncovered were ultimately aiming to improve patient care, but that they succumbed to ambition and fell victim to the ‘group think’ mentality. In actual fact, they were likely to be acting in a way that reflected general attitudes towards patients at the time. After publication, people argued that the NHS had not long been established, and that if patients were getting free healthcare, then they should rightly expect to be experimented on too – some weird give and take situation. Of course, society doesn’t think that way any longer – and rightly so.

What now?

Even though times have changed and research ethics have improved immeasurably, the publication anniversary of Human Guinea Pigs provides us with the opportunity to reflect on a hugely important event in British history.

Pappworth’s writing reminds us that the culture of workplaces, institutions, and society more generally, can challenge our own humanity. We must maintain our awareness of this and continue to improve and question the way we do things to ensure that all patients are treated fairly, kindly, and as respected individuals.